Lost Man’s Lane, by Anna Katharine Green

xxxiii

Lucetta

The next morning I rose with the lark. I had slept well, and all my old vigor had returned. A new problem was before me; a problem of surpassing interest, now that the Knollys family had been eliminated from the list of persons regarded with suspicion by the police. Mother Jane and the jewels were to be Mr. Gryce’s starting-point for future investigation. Should they be mine? My decision on this point halted, and thinking it might be helped by a breath of fresh air, I decided upon an early stroll as a means of settling this momentous question.

There was silence in the house when I passed through it on my way to the front door. But that silence had lost its terrors and the old house its absorbing mystery. Yet it was not robbed of its interest. When I realized that Althea Knollys, the Althea of my youth, had just died within its walls as ignorant of my proximity as I of hers, I felt that no old-time romance, nor any terror brought by flitting ghost or stalking apparition, could compare with the wonder of this return and the strange and thrilling circumstances which had attended it. And the end was not yet. Peaceful as everything now looked, I still felt that the end had not come.

The fact that Saracen was loose in the yard gave me some slight concern as I opened the great front door and looked out. But the control under which I had held him the day before encouraged me in my venture, and after a few words with Hannah, who was careful not to let me slip away unnoticed, I boldly stepped forth and took my solitary way down to the gate.

It was not yet eight, and the grass was still heavy with dew. At the gate I paused. I wished to go farther, but Mr. Gryce’s injunction had been imperative about venturing into the lane alone. Besides — No, that was not a horse’s hoof. There could be no one on the road so early as this. I was alarming myself unnecessarily, yet — Well, I held my place, a little awkwardly, perhaps. Self-consciousness is always awkward, and I could not help being a trifle self-conscious at a meeting so unexpected and — But the more I attempt to explain, the more confused my expressions become, so I will just say that, by this very strange chance, I was leaning over the gate when Mr. Trohm rode up for the second time and found me there.

I did not attempt any excuses. He is gentleman enough to understand that a woman of my temperament rises early and must have the morning air. That he should feel the same necessity is a coincidence, natural perhaps, but still a coincidence. So there was nothing to be said about it.

But had there been, I would not have spoken, for he seemed so gratified at finding me enjoying nature at this early hour that any words from me would have been quite superfluous. He did not dismount — that would have shown intention — but he stopped, and — well, we have both passed the age of romance, and what he said cannot be of interest to the general public, especially as it did not deal with the disappearances or with the discoveries made in the Knollys house the day before, or with any of those questions which have absorbed our attention up to this time.

That we were engaged more than five minutes in this conversation I cannot believe. I have always been extremely accurate in regard to time, yet a good half-hour was lost by me that morning for which I have never been able to account. Perhaps it was spent in the short discussion which terminated our interview; a discussion which may be of interest to you, for it was upon the action of the police.

“Nothing came of the investigations made by Mr. Gryce yesterday, I perceive,” Mr. Trohm had remarked, with some reluctance, as he gathered up his reins to depart. “Well, that is not strange. How could he have hoped to find any clue to such a mystery as he is engaged to unearth, in a house presided over by Miss Knollys?”

“How could he, indeed! Yet,” I added, determined to allay this man’s suspicions, which, notwithstanding the openness of his remark, were still observable in his tones, “you say that with an air I should hardly expect from so good a neighbor and friend. Why is this, Mr. Trohm? Surely you do not associate crime with the Misses Knollys?”

“Crime? Oh, no, certainly not. No one could associate crime with the Misses Knollys. If my tone was at fault, it was due perhaps to my embarrassment — this meeting, your kindness, the beauty of the day, and the feeling these all call forth. Well, I may be pardoned if my tones are not quite true in discussing other topics. My thoughts were with the one I addressed.”

“Then that tone of doubt was all the more misplaced,” I retorted. “I am so frank, I cannot bear innuendo in others. Besides, Mr. Trohm, the worst folly of this home was laid bare yesterday in a way to set at rest all darker suspicions. You knew that William indulged in vivisection. Well, that is bad, but it cannot be called criminal. Let us do him justice, then, and, for his sisters’ sake, see how we can re-establish him in the good graces of the community.”

But Mr. Trohm, who for all our short acquaintance was not without a very decided appreciation for certain points in my character, shook his head and with a smiling air returned:

“You are asking the impossible not only of the community, but yourself. William can never re-establish himself. He is of too rude a make. The girls may recover the esteem they seem to have lost, but William — Why, if the cause of those disappearances was found to-day, and found at the remotest end of this road or even up in the mountains, where no one seems to have looked for it, William would still be known throughout the county as a rough and cruel man. I have tried to stand his friend, but it’s been against odds, Miss Butterworth. Even his sisters recognize this, and show their lack of confidence in our friendship. But I would like to oblige you.”

I knew he ought to go. I knew that if he had simply lingered the five minutes which common courtesy allowed, that curious eyes would be looking from Loreen’s window, and that at any minute I might expect some interference from Lucetta, who had read through this man’s forbearance toward William the very natural distrust he could not but feel toward so uncertain a character. Yet with such an opportunity at my command, how could I let him go without another question?

“Mr. Trohm,” said I, “you have the kindest heart and the closest lips, but have you ever thought that Deacon Spear ——”

He stopped me with a really horrified look. “Deacon Spear’s house was thoroughly examined yesterday,” said he, “as mine will be to-day. Don’t insinuate anything against him! Leave that for foolish William.” Then with the most charming return to his old manner, for I felt myself in a measure rebuked, he lifted his hat and urged his horse forward. But, having withdrawn himself a step or two, he paused and with the slightest gesture toward the little hut he was facing, added in a much lower tone than any he had yet used: “Besides, Deacon Spear is much too far away from Mother Jane’s cottage. Don’t you remember that I told you she never could be got to go more than forty rods from her own doorstep?” And, breaking into a quick canter, he rode away.

I was left to think over his words and the impossibility of my picking up any other clue than that given me by Mr. Gryce.

I was turning toward the house when I heard a slight noise at my feet. Looking down, I encountered the eyes of Saracen. He was crouching at my side, and as I turned toward him, his tail actually wagged. It was a sight to call the color up to my cheek; not that I blushed at this sign of good-will, astonishing as it was, considering my feeling toward dogs, but at his being there at all without my knowing it. So palpable a proof that no woman — I make no exceptions — can listen more than one minute to the expressions of a man’s sincere admiration without losing a little of her watchfulness, was not to be disregarded by one as inexorable to her own mistakes as to those of others. I saw myself the victim of vanity, and while somewhat abashed by the discovery, I could not but realize that this solitary proof of feminine weakness was not really to be deplored in one who has not yet passed the line beyond which any such display is ridiculous.

Lucetta met me at the door just as I had expected her to. Giving me a short look, she spoke eagerly but with a latent anxiety, for which I was more or less prepared.

“I am glad to see you looking so bright this morning,” she declared. “We are all feeling better now that the incubus of secrecy is removed. But”— here she hesitated —“I would not like to think you told Mr. Trohm what happened to us yesterday.”

“Lucetta,” said I, “there may be women of my age who delight in gossiping about family affairs with comparative strangers, but I am not that kind of woman. Mr. Trohm, friendly as he has proved himself and worthy as he undoubtedly is of your confidence and trust, will have to learn from some other person than myself anything which you may wish to have withheld from him.”

For reply she gave me an impulsive kiss. “I thought I could trust you,” she cried. Then, with a dubious look, half daring, half shrinking, she added:

“When you come to know and like us better, you will not care so much to talk to neighbors. They never can understand us or do us justice, Mr. Trohm, especially.”

This was a remark I could not let pass.

“Why?” I demanded. “Why do you think Mr. Trohm cherishes such animosity towards you? Has he ever ——”

But Lucetta could exercise a repellent dignity when she chose. I did not finish my sentence, though I must have looked the inquiry I thought better not to put into words.

“Mr. Trohm is a man of blameless reputation,” she avowed. “If he has allowed himself to cherish suspicions in our regard, he has doubtless had his reasons for it.”

And with these quiet words she left me to my thoughts, and I must say to my doubts, which were all the more painful that I saw no immediate opportunity for clearing them up.

Late in the afternoon William burst in with news from the other end of the lane.

“Such a lark!” he cried. “The investigation at Deacon Spear’s house was a mere farce, and I just made them repeat it with a few frills. They had dug up my cellar, and I was determined they should dig up his. Oh, the fun it was! The old fellow kicked, but I had my way. They couldn’t refuse me, you know; I hadn’t refused them. So that man’s cellar-bottom has had a stir up. They didn’t find anything, but it did me a lot of good, and that’s something. I do hate Deacon Spear — couldn’t hate him worse if he’d killed and buried ten men under his hearthstone.”

“There is no harm in Deacon Spear,” said Lucetta, quickly.

“Did they submit Mr. Trohm’s house to a search also?” asked Loreen, ashamed of William’s heat and anxious to avert any further display of it.

“Yes, they went through that too. I was with them. Glad I was too. I say, girls, I could have laughed to see all the comforts that old bachelor has about him. Never saw such fixings. Why, that house is as neat and pretty from top to bottom as any old maid’s. It’s silly, of course, for a man, and I’d rather live in an old rookery like this, where I can walk from room to room in muddy boots if I want to, and train my dogs and live in freedom like the man I am. Yet I couldn’t help thinking it mighty comfortable, too, for an old fellow like him who likes such things and don’t have chick or child to meddle. Why, he had pincushions on all his bureaus, and they had pins in them.”

The laugh with which he delivered this last sentence might have been heard a quarter of a mile away. Lucetta looked at Loreen and Loreen looked at me, but none of us joined in the mirth, which seemed to me very ill-timed.

Suddenly Lucetta asked:

“Did they dig up Mr. Trohm’s cellar?”

William stopped laughing long enough to say:

“His cellar? Why, it’s cemented as hard as an oak floor. No, they didn’t polish their spades in his house, which was another source of satisfaction to me. Deacon Spear hasn’t even that to comfort him. Oh, how I did enjoy that old fellow’s face when they began to root up his old fungi!”

Lucetta turned away with a certain odd constraint I could not but notice.

“It’s a humiliating day for the lane,” said she. “And what is worse,” she suddenly added, “nothing will ever come of it. It will take more than a band of police to reach the root of this matter.”

I thought her manner odd, and, moving towards her, took her by the hand with something of a relative’s familiarity.

“What makes you say that? Mr. Gryce seems a very capable man.”

“Yes, yes, but capability has nothing to do with it. Chance might and pluck might, but wit and experience not. Otherwise the mystery would have been settled long ago. I wish I——”

“Well?” Her hand was trembling violently.

“Nothing. I don’t know why I have allowed myself to talk on this subject. Loreen and I once made a compact never to give any opinion upon it. You see how I have kept it.”

She had drawn her hand away and suddenly had become quite composed. I turned my attention toward Loreen, but she was looking out of the window and showed no intention of further pursuing the conversation. William had strolled out.

“Well,” said I, “if ever a girl had reason for breaking such a compact you are certainly that girl. I could never have been as silent as you have been — that is, if I had any suspicions on so serious a subject. Why, your own good name is impugned — yours and that of every other person living in this lane.”

“Miss Butterworth,” she replied, “I have gone too far. Besides, you have misunderstood me. I have no more knowledge than anybody else as to the source of these terrible tragedies. I only know that an almost superhuman cunning lies at the bottom of so many unaccountable disappearances, a cunning so great that only a crazy person ——”

“Ah,” I murmured eagerly, “Mother Jane!”

She did not answer. Instantly I took a resolution.

“Lucetta,” said I, “is Deacon Spear a rich man?”

Starting violently, she looked at me amazed.

“If he is, I should like to hazard the guess that he is the man who has held you in such thraldom for years.”

“And if he were?” said she.

“I could understand William’s antipathy to him and also his suspicions.”

She gave me a strange look, then without answering walked over and took Loreen by the hand. “Hush!” I thought I heard her whisper. At all events the two sisters were silent for more than a moment. Then Lucetta said:

“Deacon Spear is well off, but nothing will ever make me accuse living man of crime so dreadful.” And she walked away, drawing Loreen after her. In another moment she was out of the room, leaving me in a state of great excitement.

“This girl holds the secret to the whole situation,” I inwardly decided. “The belief that nothing more can be learned from her is a false one. I must see Mr. Gryce. William’s rodomontades are so much empty air, but Lucetta’s silence has a meaning we cannot afford to ignore.”

So impressed was I by this, that I took the first opportunity which presented itself of seeing the detective. This was early the next morning. He and several of the townspeople had made their appearance at Mother Jane’s cottage, with spades and picks, and the sight had naturally drawn us all down to the gate, where we stood watching operations in a silence which would have been considered unnatural by any one who did not realize the conflicting nature of the emotions underlying it. William, to whom the death of his mother seemed to be a great deliverance, had been inclined to be more or less jocular, but his sallies meeting with no response, he had sauntered away to have it out with his dogs, leaving me alone with the two girls and Hannah.

The latter seemed to be absorbed entirely by the aspect of Mother Jane, who stood upon her doorstep in an attitude so menacing that it was little short of tragic. Her hood, for the first time in the memory of those present, had fallen away from her head, revealing a wealth of gray hair which flew away from her head like a weird halo. Her features we could not distinguish, but the emotion which inspired her, breathed in every gesture of her uplifted arms and swaying body. It was wrath personified, and yet an unreasoning wrath. One could see she was as much dazed as outraged. Her lares and penates were being attacked, and she had come from the heart of her solitude to defend them.

“I declare!” Hannah protested. “It is pitiful. She has nothing in the world but that garden, and now they are going to root that up.”

“Do you think that the sight of a little money would appease her?” I inquired, anxious for an excuse to drop a word into the ear of Mr. Gryce.

“Perhaps,” said Hannah. “She dearly loves money, but it will not take away her fright.”

“It will if she has nothing to be frightened about,” said I; and turning to the girls, I asked them, somewhat mincingly for me, if they thought I would make myself conspicuous if I crossed the road on this errand, and when Loreen answered that that would not deter her if she had the money, and Lucetta added that the sight of such misery was too painful for any mere personal consideration, I took advantage of their complaisance, and hastily made my way over to the group, who were debating as to the point they would attack first.

“Gentlemen,” said I, “good-morning. I am here on an errand of mercy. Poor old Mother Jane is half imbecile and does not understand why you invade her premises with these implements. Will you object if I endeavor to distract her mind with a little piece of gold I happen to have in my pocket? She may not deserve it, but it will make your task easier and save us some possible concern.”

Half of the men at once took off their hats. The other half nudged each other’s elbows, and whispered and grimaced like the fools they were. The first half were gentlemen, though not all of them wore gentlemen’s clothes.

It was Mr. Gryce who spoke:

“Certainly, madam. Give the old woman anything you please, but —” And here he stepped up to me and began to whisper; “You have something to say. What is it?”

I answered in the same quick way: “The mine you thought exhausted has possibilities in it yet. Question Lucetta. It may prove a more fruitful task than turning up this soil.”

The bow he made was more for the onlookers than for the suggestion I had given him. Yet he was not ungrateful for the latter, as I, who was beginning to understand him, could see.

“Be as generous as you please!” he cried aloud. “We would not disturb the old crone if it were not for one of her well-known follies. Nothing will take her over forty rods away from her home. Now what lies within those forty rods? These men think we ought to see.”

The shrug I gave answered both the apparent and the concealed question. Satisfied that he would understand it so, I hurried away from him and approached Mother Jane.

“See!” said I, astonished at the regularity of her features, now that I had a good opportunity of observing them. “I have brought you money. Let them dig up your turnips if they will.”

She did not seem to perceive me. Her eyes were wild with dismay and her lips trembling with a passion far beyond my power to comfort.

“Lizzie!” she cried. “Lizzie! She will come back and find no home. Oh, my poor girl! My poor, poor girl!”

It was pitiable. I could not doubt her anguish or her sincerity. The delirium of a broken heart cannot be simulated. And this heart was not controlled by reason; that was equally apparent. Immediately my heart, which goes out slowly, but none the less truly on that account, was touched by something more than the surface sympathy of the moment. She may have stolen, she may have done worse, she may even have been at the bottom of the horrible crimes which have given its name to the lane we were in, but her acts, if acts they were, were the result of a clouded mind fixed forever upon the fancied needs of another, and not the expression of personal turpitude or even of personal longing or avarice. Therefore I could pity her, and I did.

Making another appeal, I pressed the coin hard into one of her hands till the contact effected what my words had been unable to do, and she finally looked down and saw what she was clutching. Then indeed her aspect changed, and in a few minutes of slowly growing comprehension she became so quiet and absorbed that she forgot to look at the men and even forgot me, who was probably nothing more than a flitting shadow to her.

“A silk gown,” she murmured. “It will buy Lizzie a silk gown. Oh! where did it come from, the good, good gold, the beautiful gold; such a little piece, yet enough to make her look fine, my Lizzie, my pretty, pretty Lizzie?”

No numbers this time. The gift was too overpowering for her even to remember that it must be hidden away.

I walked away while her delight was still voluble. Somehow it eased my mind to have done her this little act of kindness, and I think it eased the minds of the men too. At all events, every hat was off when I repassed them on my way back to the Knollys gateway.

I had left both the girls there, but I found only one awaiting me. Lucetta had gone in, and so had Hannah. On what errand I was soon to know.

“What do you suppose that detective wants of Lucetta now?” asked Loreen as I took my station again at her side. “While you were talking to Mother Jane he stepped over here, and with a word or two induced Lucetta to walk away with him toward the house. See, there they are in those thick shrubs near the right wing. He seems to be pleading with her. Do you think I ought to join them and find out what he is urging upon her so earnestly? I don’t like to seem intrusive, but Lucetta is easily agitated, you know, and his business cannot be of an indifferent nature after all he has discovered concerning our affairs.”

“No,” I agreed, “and yet I think Lucetta will be strong enough to sustain the conversation, judging from the very erect attitude she is holding now. Perhaps he thinks she can tell him where to dig. They seem a little at sea over there, and living, as you do, a few rods from Mother Jane, he may imagine that Lucetta can direct him where to first plant the spade.”

“It’s an insult,” Loreen protested. “All these talks and visits are insults. To be sure, this detective has some excuse, but ——”

“Keep your eye on Lucetta,” I interrupted. “She is shaking her head and looking very positive. She will prove to him it is an insult. We need not interfere, I think.”

But Loreen had grown pensive and did not heed my suggestion. A look that was almost wistful had supplanted the expression of indignant revolt with which she had addressed me, and when next moment the two we had been watching turned and came slowly toward us, it was with decided energy she bounded forward and joined them.

“What is the matter now?” she asked. “What does Mr. Gryce want, Lucetta?”

Mr. Gryce himself spoke.

“I simply want her,” said he, “to assist me with a clue from her inmost thoughts. When I was in your house,” he explained with a praiseworthy consideration for me and my relations to these girls for which I cannot be too grateful, “I saw in this young lady something which convinced me that, as a dweller in this lane, she was not without her suspicions as to the secret cause of the fatal mysteries which I have been sent here to clear up. To-day I have frankly accused her of this, and asked her to confide in me. But she refuses to do so, Miss Loreen. Yet her face shows even at this moment that my old eyes were not at fault in my reading of her. She does suspect somebody, and it is not Mother Jane.”

“How can you say that?” began Lucetta, but the eyes which Loreen that moment turned upon her seemed to trouble her, for she did not attempt to say any more — only looked equally obstinate and distressed.

“If Lucetta suspects any one,” Loreen now steadily remarked, “then I think she ought to tell you who it is.”

“You do. Then perhaps you —” commenced Mr. Gryce —“can persuade her as to her duty,” he finished, as he saw her head rise in protest of what he evidently had intended to demand.

“Lucetta will not yield to persuasion,” was her quiet reply. “Nothing short of conviction will move the sweetest-natured but the most determined of all my mother’s children. What she thinks is right, she will do. I will not attempt to influence her.”

Mr. Gryce, with one comprehensive survey of the two, hesitated no longer. I saw the rising of the blood into his forehead, which always precedes the beginning of one of his great moves, and, filled with a sudden excitement, I awaited his next words as a tyro awaits the first unfolding of the plan he has seen working in the brain of some famous strategist.

“Miss Lucetta,”— his very tone was changed, changed in a way to make us all start notwithstanding the preparation his momentary silence had given us —“I have been thus pressing and perhaps rude in my appeal, because of something which has come to my knowledge which cannot but make you of all persons extremely anxious as to the meaning of this terrible mystery. I am an old man, and you will not mind my bluntness. I have been told — and your agitation convinces me there is truth in the report — that you have a lover, a Mr. Ostrander ——”

“Ah!” She had sunk as if crushed by one overwhelming blow to the earth. The eyes, the lips, the whole pitiful face that was upturned to us, remain in my memory to-day as the most terrible and yet the most moving spectacle that has come into my by no means uneventful life. “What has happened to him? Quick, quick, tell me!”

For answer Mr. Gryce drew out a telegram.

“From the master of the ship on which he was to sail,” he explained. “It asks if Mr. Ostrander left this town on Tuesday last, as no news has been received of him.”

“Loreen! Loreen! When he left us he passed down that way!” shrieked the girl, rising like a spirit and pointing east toward Deacon Spear’s. “He is gone! He is lost! But his fate shall not remain a mystery. I will dare its solution. I— I— To-night you will hear from me again.”

And without another glance at any of us she turned and fled toward the house.

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