Lost Man’s Lane, by Anna Katharine Green

xxxix

Under a Crimson Sky

When, in the course of events, the current of my thoughts receive a decided check and I find myself forced to change former conclusions or habituate myself to new ideas and a fresh standpoint, I do it, as I do everything else, with determination and a total disregard of my own previous predilections. Before the afternoon was well over I was ready for any revelations which might follow Lucetta’s contemplated action, merely reserving a vague hope that my judgment would yet be found superior to her instinct.

At five o’clock the diggers began to go home. Nothing had been found under the soil of Mother Jane’s garden, and the excitement of search which had animated them early in the day had given place to a dull resentment mainly directed towards the Knollys family, if one could judge of these men’s feelings by the heavy scowls and significant gestures with which they passed our broken-down gateway.

By six the last man had filed by, leaving Mr. Gryce free for the work which lay before him.

I had retired long before this to my room, where I awaited the hour set by Lucetta with a feverish impatience quite new to me. As none of us could eat, the supper table had not been laid, and though I had no means of knowing what was in store for us, the sombre silence and oppression under which the whole house lay seemed a portent that was by no means encouraging.

Suddenly I heard a knock at my door. Rising hastily, I opened it. Loreen stood before me, with parted lips and terror in all her looks.

“Come!” she cried. “Come and see what I have found in Lucetta’s room.”

“Then she’s gone?” I cried.

“Yes, she’s gone, but come and see what she has left behind her.”

Hastening after Loreen, who was by this time half-way down the hall, I soon found myself on the threshold of the room I knew to be Lucetta’s.

“She made me promise,” cried Loreen, halting to look back at me, “that I would let her go alone, and that I would not enter the highway till an hour after her departure. But with these evidences of the extent of her dread before us, how can we stay in this house?” And dragging me to a table, she showed me lying on its top a folded paper and two letters. The folded paper was Lucetta’s Will, and the letters were directed severally to Loreen and to myself with the injunction that they were not to be read till she had been gone six hours.

“She has prepared herself for death!” I exclaimed, shocked to my heart’s core, but determinedly hiding it. “But you need not fear any such event. Is she not accompanied by Mr. Gryce?”

“I do not know; I do not think so. How could she accomplish her task if not alone? Miss Butterworth, Miss Butterworth, she has gone to brave Mr. Trohm, our mother’s persecutor and our life-long enemy, thinking, hoping, believing that in so doing she will rouse his criminal instincts, if he has them, and so lead to the discovery of his crimes and the means by which he has been enabled to carry them out so long undetected. It is noble, it is heroic, it is martyr-like, but — oh! Miss Butterworth, I have never broken a promise to any one before in all my life, but I am going to break the one I made her. Come, let us fly after her! She has her lover’s memory, but I have nothing in all the world but her.”

I immediately turned and hastened down the stairs in a state of humiliation which should have made ample amends for any show of arrogance I may have indulged in in my more fortunate moments.

Loreen followed me, and when we were in the lower hall she gave me a look and said:

“My promise was not to enter the highway. Would you be afraid to follow me by another road — a secret road — all overgrown with thistles and blackberry bushes which have not been trimmed up for years?”

I thought of my thin shoes, my neat silk dress, but only to forget them the next moment.

“I will go anywhere,” said I.

But Loreen was already too far in advance of me to answer. She was young and lithe, and had reached the kitchen before I had passed the Flower Parlor. But when we had sped clear of the house I found that my progress bade fair to be as rapid as hers, for her agitation was a hindrance to her, while excitement always brings out my powers and heightens both my wits and my judgment.

Our way lay past the stables, from which I expected every minute to see two or three dogs jump. But William, who had been discreetly sent out of the way early in the afternoon, had taken Saracen with him, and possibly the rest, so our passing by disturbed nothing, not even ourselves. The next moment we were in a field of prickers, through which we both struggled till we came into a sort of swamp. Here was bad going, but we floundered on, edging continually toward a distant fence beyond which rose the symmetrical lines of an orchard — Mr. Trohm’s orchard, in which those pleasant fruits grew which — Bah! should I ever be able to get the taste of them out of my mouth!

At a tiny gateway covered with vines, Loreen stopped.

“I do not believe this has been opened for years, but it must be opened now.” And, throwing her whole weight against it, she burst it through, and bidding me pass, hastened after me over the trailing branches and made, without a word, for the winding path we now saw clearly defined on the edge of the orchard before us.

“Oh!” exclaimed Loreen, stopping one moment to catch her breath, “I do not know what I fear or to what our steps will bring us. I only know that I must hunt for Lucetta till I find her. If there is danger where she is, I must share it. You can rest here or come farther on.”

I went farther on.

Suddenly we both started; a man had sprung up from behind the hedgerow that ran parallel with the fence that surrounded Mr. Trohm’s place.

“Silence!” he whispered, putting his finger on his lips. “If you are looking for Miss Knollys,” he added, seeing us both pause aghast, “she is on the lawn beyond, talking to Mr. Trohm. If you will step here, you can see her. She is in no kind of danger, but if she were, Mr. Gryce is in the first row of trees to the back there, and a call from me ——”

That made me remember my whistle. It was still round my neck, but my hand, which had instinctively gone to it, fell again in extraordinary emotion as I realized the situation and compared it with that of the morning when, blinded by egotism and foolish prejudice in favor of this man, I ate of his fruit and hearkened to his outrageous addresses.

“Come!” beckoned Loreen, happily too absorbed in her own emotions to notice mine. “Let us get nearer. If Mr. Trohm is the wicked man we fear, there is no telling what the means are which he uses to get rid of his victims. There was nothing to be found in his house, but who knows where the danger may lurk, and that it may not be near her now? It was evidently to dare it she came, to offer herself as a martyr, that we might know ——”

“Hush!” I whispered, controlling my own fears roused against my will by this display of terror in this usually calmest of natures. “No danger can menace her where they stand, unless he is a common assassin and carries a pistol ——”

“No pistol,” murmured the man, who had crept again near us. “Pistols make a noise. He will not use a pistol.”

“Good God!” I whispered. “You do not share her sister’s fears that it is in the heart of this man to kill Lucetta?”

“Five strong men have disappeared hereabout,” said the fellow, never moving his eye from the couple before us. “Why not one weak girl?”

With a cry Loreen started forward. “Run!” she whispered. “Run!”

But as this word left her lips, a slight movement took place in the belt of trees where we had been told Mr. Gryce lay in hiding, and we could see him issue for a moment into sight with his finger like that of his man laid warningly on his lips. Loreen trembled and drew back, seeing which, the man beside us pointed to the hedge and whispered softly:

“There is just room between it and the fence for a person to pass sideways. If you and this lady want to get nearer to Miss Knollys, you might take that road. But Mr. Gryce will expect you to be very quiet. The young lady expressly said, before she came into this place, that she could do nothing if for any reason Mr. Trohm should suspect they were not alone.”

“We will be quiet,” I assured him, anxious to hide my face, which I felt twitch at every mention of Mr. Trohm’s name. Loreen was already behind the hedge.

The evening was one of those which are made for peace. The sun, which had set in crimson, had left a glow on the branches of the forest which had not yet faded into the gray of twilight. The lawn, around which we were skirting, had not lost the mellow brilliancy which made it sparkle, nor had the cluster of varied-hued hollyhocks which set their gorgeousness against the neat yellow of the peaceful doorposts, shown any dimness in their glory, which was on a par with that of the setting sun. But though I saw all this, it no longer appeared to me desirable. Lucetta and Lucetta’s fate, the mystery and the impossibility of its being explained out here in the midst of turf and blossoms, filled all my thoughts, and made me forget my own secret cause for shame and humiliation.

Loreen, who had wormed her way along till she crouched nearly opposite to the place where her sister stood, plucked me by the gown as I approached her, and, pointing to the hedge, which pressed up so close it nearly touched our faces, seemed to bid me look through. Searching for a spot where there was a small opening, I put my eye to this and immediately drew back.

“They are moving nearer the gate,” I signalled to Loreen, at which she crept along a few paces, but with a stealth so great that, alert as I was, I could not hear a twig snap. I endeavored to imitate her, but not with as much success as I could wish. The sense of horror which had all at once settled upon me, the supernatural dread of something which I could not see, but which I felt, had seized me for the first time and made the ruddy sky and the broad stretch of velvet turf with the shadows playing over it of swaying tree-tops and clustered oleanders, more thrilling and awesome to me than the dim halls of the haunted house of the Knollys family in that midnight hour when I saw a body carried out for burial amid trouble and hush and a mystery so great it would have daunted most spirits for the remainder of their lives.

The very sweetness of the scene made its horror. Never have I had such sensations, never have I felt so deeply the power of the unseen, yet it seemed so impossible that anything could happen here, anything which would explain the total disappearance of several persons at different times, without a trace of their fate being left to the eye, that I could but liken my state to that of nightmare, where visions take the place of realities and often overwhelm them.

I had pressed too close against the hedge as I struggled with these feelings, and the sound I made struck me as distinct, if not alarming; but the tree-tops were rustling overhead, and, while Lucetta might have heard the hedge-branches crack, her companion gave no evidence of doing so. We could distinguish what they were saying now, and realizing this, we stopped moving and gave our whole attention to listening. Mr. Trohm was speaking. I could hardly believe it was his voice, it had so changed in tone, nor could I perceive in his features, distorted as they now were by every evil passion, the once quiet and dignified countenance which had so lately imposed upon me.

“Lucetta, my little Lucetta,” he was saying, “so she has come to see me, come to taunt me with the loss of her lover, whom she says I have robbed her of almost before her eyes! I rob her! How can I rob her or any one of a man with a voice and arm of his own stronger than mine? Am I a wizard to dissipate his body in vapor? Yet can you find it in my house or on my lawn? You are a fool, Lucetta; so are all these men about here fools! It is in your house ——”

“Hush!” she cried, her slight figure rising till we forgot it was the feeble Lucetta we were gazing at. “No more accusations directed against us. It is you who must expect them now. Mr. Trohm, your evil practices are discovered. To-morrow you will have the police here in earnest. They did but play with you when they were here before.”

“You child!” he gasped, striving, however, to restrain all evidences of shock and terror. “Why, who was it called in the police and set them working in Lost Man’s Lane? Was it not I——”

“Yes, that they might not suspect you, and perhaps that they might suspect us. But it was useless, Obadiah Trohm. Althea Knollys’ children have been long-suffering, but the limit of their forbearance has been reached. When you laid your hand upon my lover, you roused a spirit in me that nothing but your own destruction can satisfy. Where is he, Mr. Trohm? and where is Silly Rufus and all the rest who have vanished between Deacon Spear’s house and the little home of the cripples on the highroad? They have asked me this question, but if any one in Lost Man’s Lane can answer, it is you, persecutor of my mother, and traducer of ourselves, whom I here denounce in face of these skies where God reigns and this earth where man lives to harry and condemn.”

And then I saw that the instinct of this girl had accomplished what our united acumen and skill had failed to do. The old man — indeed he seemed an old man now — cringed, and the wrinkles came out in his face till he was demoniacally ugly.

“You viper!” he shrieked. “How dare you accuse me of crime — you whose mother would have died in jail but for my forbearance? Have you ever seen me set my foot upon a worm? Look at my fruit and flowers, look at my home, without a spot or blemish to mar its neatness and propriety. Can a man who loves these things stomach the destruction of a man, much less of a silly, yawping boy? Lucetta, you are mad!”

“Mad or sane, my accusation will have its results, Mr. Trohm. I believe too deeply in your guilt not to make others do so.”

“Ah,” said he, “then you have not done so yet? You believe this and that, but you have not told any one what your suspicions are?”

“No,” she calmly returned, though her face blanched to the colorlessness of wax, “I have not said what I think of you yet.”

Oh, the cunning that crept into his face!

“She has not said. Oh, the little Lucetta, the wise, the careful little Lucetta!”

“But I will,” she cried, meeting his eye with the courage and constancy of a martyr, “though I bring destruction upon myself. I will denounce you and do it before the night has settled down upon us. I have a lover to avenge, a brother to defend. Besides, the earth should be rid of such a monster as you.”

“Such a monster as I? Well, my pretty one,”— his voice grown suddenly wheedling, his face a study of mingled passions — “we will see about that. Come just a step nearer, Lucetta. I want to see if you are really the little girl I used to dandle on my knee.”

They were now near the gateway. They had been moving all this time. His hand was on the curb of the old well. His face, so turned that it caught the full glare of the setting sun, leaned toward the girl, exerting a fascinating influence upon her. She took the step he asked, and before we could shriek out “Beware!” we saw him bend forward with a sudden quick motion and then start upright again, while her form, which but an instant before had stood there in all its frail and inspired beauty, tottered as if the ground were bending under it, and in another moment disappeared from our appalled sight, swallowed in some dreadful cavern that for an instant yawned in the smoothly cut lawn before us, and then vanished again from sight as if it had never been.

A shriek from my whistle mingled with a simultaneous cry of agony from Loreen. We heard Mr. Gryce rush from behind us, but we ourselves found it impossible to stir, paralyzed as we were by the sight of the old man’s demoniacal delight. He was leaping to and fro over the turf, holding up his fingers in the red sunset glare.

“Six!” he shrieked. “Six! and room for two more! Oh, it’s a merry life I lead! Flowers and fruit and love-making” (oh, how I cringed at that!), “and now and then a little spice like this! But where is my pretty Lucetta? Surely she was here a moment ago. How could she have vanished, then, so quickly? I do not see her form amid the trees, there is no trace of her presence upon the lawn, and if they search the house from top to bottom and from bottom to top they will find nothing of her — no, not so much as a print of her footstep or the scent of the violets she so often wears tucked into her hair.”

These last words, uttered in a different voice from the rest, gave the clue to the whole situation. We saw, even while we all bounded forward to the rescue of the devoted maiden, that he was one of those maniacs who have perfect control over themselves and pass for very decent sort of men except in the moment of triumph; and, noting his look of sinister delight, perceived that half his pleasure and almost his sole reward for the horrible crimes he had perpetrated, was in the mystery surrounding his victims and the entire immunity from suspicion which up to this time he had enjoyed.

Meantime Mr. Gryce had covered the wretch with his pistol, and his man, who succeeded in reaching the place even sooner than ourselves, hampered as we were by the almost impenetrable hedge behind which we had crouched, tried to lift the grass-covered lid we could faintly discern there. But this was impossible until I, with almost superhuman self-possession, considering the imperative nature of the emergency, found the spring hidden in the well-curb which worked the deadly mechanism. A yell from the writhing creature cowering under the detective’s pistol guided me unconsciously in its action, and in another moment we saw the fatal lid tip and disclose what appeared to be the remains of a second well, long ago dried up and abandoned for the other.

The rescue of Lucetta followed. As she had fainted in falling she had not suffered much, and soon we had the supreme delight of seeing her eyes unclose.

“Ah,” she murmured, in a voice whose echo pierced to every heart save that of the guilty wretch now lying handcuffed on the sward, “I thought I saw Albert! He was not dead, and I——”

But here Mr. Gryce, with an air at once contrite and yet strangely triumphant, interposed his benevolent face between hers and her weeping sister’s and whispered something in her ear which turned her pallid cheek to a glowing scarlet. Rising up, she threw her arms around his neck and let him lift her. As he carried her — where was his rheumatism now? — out of those baleful grounds and away from the reach of the maniac’s mingled laughs and cries, her face was peace itself. But his — well, his was a study.

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