It was ten o’clock, not later, when the judge reentered his front door. He was alone — absolutely alone, as he had never been since that night of long ago, when with the inner fence completed and the gates all locked, he turned to the great negro at his side and quietly said:
“We are done with the world, Bela. Are you satisfied to share this solitude with me?” And Bela had replied: “Night and day, your honour. And when you are not here — when you are at court, to bear it alone.”
And now this faithful friend was dead, and it was he who must bear it alone — alone! How could he face it! He sought for no answer, nor did he allow himself to dwell for one minute on the thought. There was something else he must do first — do this very night, if possible.
Taking down his hat from the rack he turned and went out again, this time carefully locking the door behind him, also the first gate. But he stopped to listen before lifting his hand to the second one.
A sound of steady breathing, accompanied by a few impatient movements, came from the other side. A man was posted there within a foot of the gate. Noiselessly the judge recoiled, and made his way around to the other set of gates. Here all was quiet enough, and sliding quickly out, he cast a hasty glance up and down the lane, and seeing nothing more alarming than the back of a second officer lounging at the corner, pulled the gate quietly to, and locked it.
He was well down the road towards the ravine, before the officer turned.
The time has now come for giving you a clearer idea of this especial neighbourhood. Judge Ostrander’s house, situated as you all know at the juncture of an unimportant road with the main highway, had in its rear three small houses, two of them let and one still unrented. Farther on, but on the opposite side of the way, stood a very old dwelling in which there lived and presumably worked, a solitary woman, the sole and final survivor of a large family. Beyond was the ravine, cutting across the road and terminating it. This ravine merits some description.
It was a picturesque addition to the town through which it cut at the point of greatest activity. With the various bridges connecting the residence portion with the lower business streets we have nothing to do. But there was a nearer one of which the demands of my story necessitate a clear presentation.
This bridge was called Long, and spanned the ravine and its shallow stream of water not a quarter of a mile below the short road or lane we have just seen Judge Ostrander enter. Between it and this lane, a narrow path ran amid the trees and bushes bordering the ravine. This path was seldom used, but when it was, it acted as a short cut to a certain part of the town mostly given over to factories. Indeed the road of which this bridge formed a part was called Factory on this account. Starting from the main highway a half mile or so below Ostrander Lane, it ran diagonally back to the bridge, where it received a turn which sent it south and east again towards the lower town. A high bluff rose at this point, which made the farther side of the ravine much more imposing than the one on the near side where the slope was gradual.
This path, and even the bridge itself, were almost wholly unlighted. They were seldom used at night — seldom used at any time. But it was by this route the judge elected to go into town; not for the pleasure of the walk, as was very apparent from the extreme depression of his manner, but from some inward necessity which drove him on, against his wishes, possibly against his secret misgivings.
He had met no one in his short walk down the lane, but for all that, he paused before entering the path just mentioned, to glance back and see if he were being watched or followed. When satisfied that he was not, he looked up, from the solitary waste where he stood, to the cheerless heavens and sighed; then forward into the mass of impenetrable shadow that he must yet traverse and shuddered as many another had shuddered ere beginning this walk. For it was near the end of this path, in full sight of the bridge he must cross, that his friend, Algernon Etheridge, had been set upon and murdered so many years before; and the shadow of this ancient crime still lingered over the spot, deepening its natural gloom even for minds much less sympathetic and responsive to spiritual influences than Judge Ostrander.
But this shudder, whether premonitory or just the involuntary tribute of friend to friend, did not prevent his entering the path or following its line of shadow as it rose and dipped in its course down the gorge.
I have spoken of the cheerlessness of the heavens. It was one of those nights when the sky, piled thick with hurrying clouds, hangs above one like a pall. But the moon, hidden behind these rushing masses, was at its full, and the judge soon found that he could see his way better than he had anticipated — better than was desirable, perhaps. He had been on the descent of the path for some little time now, and could not be far from the more level ground which marked the approach to Long Bridge. Determined not to stop or to cast one faltering look to right or left, he hurried on with his eyes fixed upon the ground and every nerve braced to resist the influence of the place and its undying memories. But with the striking of his foot against the boards of the bridge, nature was too much for him, and his resolve vanished. Instead of hastening on, he stopped; and, having stopped, paused long enough to take in all the features of the scene, and any changes which time might have wrought. He even forced his shrinking eyes to turn and gaze upon the exact spot where his beloved Algernon had been found, with his sightless eyes turned to the sky.
This latter place, singular in that it lay open to the opposite bank without the mask of bush or tree to hide it, was in immediate proximity to the end of the bridge he had attempted to cross. It bore the name of Dark Hollow, and hollow and dark it looked in the universal gloom. But the power of its associations was upon him, and before he knew it, he was retracing his steps as though drawn by a magnetism he could not resist, till he stood within this hollow and possibly on the very foot of ground from the mere memory of which he had recoiled for years.
A moment of contemplation — a sigh, such as only escapes the bursting heart in moments of extreme grief or desolation — and he tore his eyes from the ground to raise them slowly but with deep meaning to where the high line of trees on the opposite side of the ravine met the grey vault of the sky. Darkness piled itself against darkness, but with a difference to one who knew all the undulations of this bluff and just where it ended in the sheer fall which gave a turn to the road at the farther end of the bridge.
But it was not upon the mass of undistinguishable tree-tops or the line they made against the sky that his gaze lingered. It was on something more material; something which rose from the brow of the hill in stark and curious outline not explainable in itself, but clear enough to one who had seen its shape by daylight. Judge Ostrander had thus seen it many times in the past, and knew just where to look for the one remaining chimney and solitary gable of a house struck many years before by lightning and left a grinning shell to mock the eye of all who walked this path or crossed this bridge.
Black amid blackness, with just the contrast of its straight lines to the curve of natural objects about it, it commanded the bluff, summoning up memories of an evil race cut short in a moment by an outraged Providence, and Judge Ostrander marking it, found himself muttering aloud as he dragged himself slowly away: “Why should Time, so destructive elsewhere, leave one stone upon another of this accursed ruin?”
Alas! Heaven has no answer for such questions.
When he had reached the middle of the bridge, he stopped short to look back at Dark Hollow and utter in a smothered groan, which would not be repressed, a name which by all the rights of the spot should have been Algernon’s, but was not.
The utterance of this name seemed to startle him, for, with a shuddering look around, he hastily traversed the rest of the bridge, and took the turn about the hill to where Factory Road branched off towards the town. Here he stopped again and for the first time revealed the true nature of his destination. For when he moved on again it was to take the road along the bluff, and not the one leading directly into town.
This meant a speedy passing by the lightning-struck house. He knew this of course, and evidently shrunk from the ordeal, for once up the hill and on the level stretch above, he resolutely forbore to cast a glance at its dilapidated fence and decayed gate posts. Had he not done this — had his eyes followed the long line of the path leading from these toppling posts to the face of the ruin, he would have been witness to a strange sight. For gleaming through the demolished heart of it — between the chimney on the one side and the broken line of the gable on the other — could be seen the half circle of the moon suddenly released from the clouds which had hitherto enshrouded it. A weird sight, to be seen only when all conditions favoured. It was to be seen here to-night; but the judge’s eye was bent another way, and he passed on, unnoting.
The ground was high along this bluff; almost fifty feet above the level of the city upon, which he had just turned his back. Of stony formation and much exposed to the elements, it had been considered an undesirable site by builders, and not a house was to be seen between the broken shell of the one he had just left, and the long, low, brilliantly illuminated structure ahead, for which he was evidently making. The sight of these lights and of the trees by which the house was surrounded, suggested festival and caused a qualm of indecision to momentarily disturb him in his purpose. But this purpose was too strong, and the circumstances too urgent for him to be deterred by anything less potent than a stroke of lightning. He rather increased his pace than slackened it and was rewarded by seeing lamp after lamp go out as he approached.
The pant of a dozen motors, the shouting of various farewells and then the sudden rushing forth of a long line of automobiles, proclaimed that the fete of the day was about over and that peace and order would soon prevail again in Claymore Inn.
Without waiting for the final one to pass, the judge slid around to the rear and peered in at the kitchen door. If Mrs. Yardley were the woman he supposed her to be from the sergeant’s description, she would be just then in the thick of the dish~washing. And it was Mrs. Yardley he wished to see.
Three women were at work in this busiest of scenes, and, deciding at a glance which was the able mistress of the house, he approached the large, pleasant and commanding figure piling plates at the farther end of the room and courteously remarked:
“Mrs. Yardley, I believe?”
The answer came quickly, and not without a curious smile of constraint:
“Oh, no. Mrs. Yardley is in the entry behind.”
Bowing his thanks, he stepped in the direction named, just as the three women’s heads came simultaneously together. There was reason for their whispers. His figure, his head, his face, were all unusual, and at that moment highly expressive, and coming as he did out of the darkness, his presence had an uncanny effect upon their simple minds. They had been laughing before; they ceased to laugh now. Why?
Meanwhile, Judge Ostrander was looking about him for Mrs. Yardley. The quiet figure of a squat little body blocked up a certain doorway.
“I am looking for Mrs. Yardley,” he ventured.
The little figure turned; he was conscious of two very piercing eyes being raised to his, and heard in shaking accents, which yet were not the accents of weakness, the surprised ejaculation:
Next minute they were together in a small room, with the door shut behind them. The energy and decision of this mite of a woman were surprising.
“I was going — to you — in the morning —” she panted in her excitement. “To apologise,” she respectfully finished.
“Then,” said he, “it was your child who visited my house to-day?”
She nodded. Her large head was somewhat disproportioned to her short and stocky body. But her glance and manner were not unpleasing. There was a moment of silence which she hastened to break.
“Peggy is very young; it was not her fault. She is so young she doesn’t even know where she went. She was found loitering around the bridge — a dangerous place for a child, but we’ve been very busy all day — and she was found there and taken along by — by the other person. I hope that you will excuse it, sir.”
Was she giving the judge an opportunity to recover from his embarrassment, or was she simply making good her own cause? Whichever impulse animated her, the result was favourable to both. Judge Ostrander lost something of his strained look, and it was no longer difficult for her to meet his eye.
Nevertheless, what he had to say came with a decided abruptness.
“Who is the woman, Mrs. Yardley? That’s what I have come to learn, and not to complain of your child.”
The answer struck him very strangely, though he saw nothing to lead him to distrust her candour.
“I don’t know, Judge Ostrander. She calls herself Averill, but that doesn’t make me sure of her. You wonder that I should keep a lodger about whom I have any doubts, but there are times when Mr. Yardley uses his own judgment, and this is one of the times. The woman pays well and promptly,” she added in a lower tone.
“Her status? Is she maid, wife or widow?”
“Oh, she says she is a widow, and I see every reason to believe her.”
A slight grimness in her manner, the smallest possible edge to her voice, led the judge to remark:
“She’s good-looking, I suppose.”
A laugh, short and unmusical but not without a biting humour, broke unexpectedly from the landlady’s lips.
“If she is, HE don’t know it. He hasn’t seen her.”
“Not seen her?”
“No. Her veil was very thick the night she came and she did not lift it as long as he was by. If she had —”
“I’m afraid that he wouldn’t have exacted as much from her as he did. She’s one of those women —”
“Don’t hesitate, Mrs. Yardley.”
“I’m thinking how to put it. Who has her will of your sex, I might say. Now I’m not.”
“Not like a girl, sir. She’s old enough to show fade; but I don’t believe that a man would mind that. She has a look — a way, that even women feel. You may judge, sir, if we, old stagers at the business, have been willing to take her in and keep her, at any price — a woman who won’t show her face except to me, and who will not leave her room without her veil and then only for walks in places where no one else wants to go — she must have some queer sort of charm to overcome all scruples. But she’s gone too far today. She shall leave the Inn to-morrow. I promise you that, sir, whatever Samuel says. But sit down; sit down; you look tired, judge. Is there anything you would like? Shall I call Samuel?”
“No. I’m not much used to walking. Besides, I have had a great loss to-day. My man, Bela —” Then with his former abruptness: “Have you no idea who this Mrs. Averill is, or why she broke into my house?”
“There’s but one explanation, sir. I’ve been thinking about it ever since I got wind of where she took my Peggy. The woman is not responsible. She has some sort of mania. Why else should she go into a strange gate just because she saw it open?”
“She hasn’t confided in you?”
“No, sir. I haven’t seen her since she brought Peggy back. We’ve had this big automobile party, and I thought my reckoning with her would keep. I heard about what had happened at your place from the man who brought us fruit.”
“Mrs. Yardley, you’ve seen this woman’s face?”
“Yes, I’ve seen her.”
“Describe it more particularly.”
“I can’t. She has brown hair, brown eyes and a skin as white as milk; but that don’t describe her. Lots of women have all that.”
“No, it doesn’t describe her.” His manner seemed to pray for further details, but she stared back, unresponsive. In fact, she felt quite helpless. With a sigh of impatience, he resorted again to question.
“You speak of her as a stranger. Are you quite sure that she is a stranger to Shelby? You have not been so very many years here, and her constant wearing of a veil in-doors and out is very suspicious.”
“So I’m beginning to think. And there is something else, judge, which makes me suspect you may be quite correct about her not being an entire stranger here. She knows this house too well.”
The judge started. The strength of his self-control had relaxed a bit, and he showed in the look he cast about him what it had cost him to enter these doors.
“It is not the same, of course,” continued Mrs. Yardley, affected in a peculiar way by the glimpse she had caught of the other’s emotion unnatural and incomprehensible as it appeared to her. “The place has been greatly changed, but there is a certain portion of the old house left which only a person who knew it as it originally was would be apt to find; and yesterday, on going into one of these remote rooms I came upon her sitting in one of the windows looking out. How she got there or why she went, I cannot tell you. She didn’t choose to tell me, and I didn’t ask. But I’ve not felt real easy about her since.”
“Excuse me, Mrs. Yardley, it may be a matter of no moment, but do you mind telling me where this room is?”
“It’s on the top floor, sir; and it looks out over the ravine. Perhaps she was spying out the path to your house.”
The judge’s face hardened. He felt baffled and greatly disturbed; but he spoke kindly enough when he again addressed Mrs. Yardley:
“I am as ignorant as you of this woman’s personality and of her reasons for intruding into my presence this morning. But there is something so peculiar about this presumptuous attempt of hers at an interview, that I feel impelled to inquire into it more fully, even if I have to approach the only source of information capable of giving me what I want — that is, herself. Mrs. Yardley, will you procure me an immediate interview with this woman? I am sure that you can be relied upon to do this and to do it with caution. You have the countenance of a woman unusually discreet.”
The subtle flattery did its work. She was not blind to the fact that he had introduced it for that very purpose, but it was not in her nature to withstand any appeal from so exalted a source however made. Lifting her eyes fearlessly to his, she responded earnestly:
“I am proud to serve you. I will see what I can do. Will you wait here for just a few minutes?”
He bowed quietly enough; but he was very restless when once he found himself alone. Those few minutes of waiting seemed interminable to him. Would the woman come? Was she as anxious to see him now as she had been in the early morning? Much depended on her mood, but more on the nature of the errand which had taken her into his house. If that errand was a vital one, he would soon hear her steps; indeed, he was hearing her steps now — he was sure of it. Those of Mrs. Yardley were quicker, shorter, more businesslike. These, now advancing through the corridor, lingered as if held back by dread or a fateful indecision.
He would fain hasten them, but discretion forbade.
They faltered, turned, then, in an instant, all hesitation was lost in purpose and they again advanced this time to the threshold. Judge Ostrander had just time to brace himself to meet the unknown, when the door fell back and the woman of the morning appeared in the opening.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55