All was quiet in the halls, but as I proceeded toward their room I perceived a figure standing near the doorway, which, in another moment, I saw to be that of Burritt. He was trembling like a leaf, and was bent forward, listening.
“Hush!” he whispered; “they are talking. All seems to be right. I just heard him call her darling.”
I drew the man away and took his place. Yes; they were talking in subdued but not unkindly tones. I heard him bid her be composed, and caught, as I thought, a light reply that ought to have satisfied me that Mrs. Urquhart had simply suffered from some nightmare horror at which she was as ready to laugh now as he. But my nature is a contradictory one, and I was not satisfied. The echo of her cry was still ringing in my ears, and I felt as if I would give the world for a momentary peep into their room. Influenced by this idea, I boldly knocked, and in an instant — too soon for him not to have been standing near the door — I heard his breath through the keyhole and the words:
“Who is there, and what do you want?”
“We heard a cry,” was my response, “and I feared Mrs. Urquhart was ill again.”
“Mrs. Urquhart is very well,” came hastily, almost gayly, from within. “She had a dream, and was willing that every one should know it. Is not that all?” he said, seemingly addressing his wife.
There was a murmur within, and then I heard her voice. “It was only a dream, dear Mrs. Truax,” it said, and convinced against my will, I was about to return to my room, when I brushed against Burritt. He had not moved, and did not look as if he intended to.
“Come,” said I, “there is no use of our remaining here.”
“Can’t help it,” was his whispered reply. “In this hall I stay till morning. When I see a lamb in the care of a wolf, I find it hard to sleep. There is a door between us, but please God there shan’t be anything more.”
And knowing Burritt, I did not try to argue, but went quietly and somewhat thoughtfully to my room, vaguely relieved that I left him behind, though convinced there would be no further need of his services.
And so it was. No more sounds disturbed the house, and when I came down, with the first streak of daylight, I found Burritt gone about his work.
Breakfast was served to the Urquharts in their own room. I had wished to carry it in myself, but I found this inconvenient, and so I sent Hetty. When she came back I asked her how Mrs. Urquhart looked.
“Very well, ma’am,” was the quick reply. “And see! I don’t think she’s as unhappy as we all thought last night, or she wouldn’t be giving me a bright new crown.”
I glanced at the girl’s palm. There was indeed a bright new crown in it.
“Did she give you that?” I inquired.
“Yes, ma’am; she herself. And she laughed when she did it, and said it was for the good breakfast I had brought her.”
I was busy at the time, and could not stop to give the girl’s words much thought; but as soon as I had any leisure, I went to see for myself how Mrs. Urquhart looked when she laughed.
I was five minutes too late. She had just donned her traveling bonnet and veil, and though I heard her laugh slightly once, I did not see her face.
I saw his, however, and was surprised at the good nature in it. He was quite the gentleman, and if he had not been in such a hurry, would have doubtless made, or endeavored to make, himself very agreeable. But he was just watching his great box carried out to the wagon, and while he took pains to talk to me — was it to keep me from talking to her? — he was naturally a little absentminded. He was in haste, too, and insisted upon placing his wife in the carriage before all his baggage was taken from the room. And she seemed willing to go. I watched her on purpose to see, for I was not yet satisfied that she was not playing a part at his dictation, but I could discover no hint of reluctance in her manner, but rather a quiet alacrity, as if she felt glad to quit a room to which she had taken a dislike.
When I saw this, and noted the light step of her feet, I said to myself that I had been a fool, and lost a little of the interest I had felt for her. Nor did I regain it till after they had driven away, though she showed a consideration for me at the last which I had not expected, leaning from the carriage to give me a good-by pressure of the hand, and even nodding again and again as they disappeared down the road. For the fear which could be dissipated in a night was not the fear with which I had credited her; and of ordinary excitements and commonplace natures I had seen enough in my long experience as landlady to make me unwilling to trouble myself with any more of them.
But when the carriage and its accompanying wagon had quite disappeared, and Mr. and Mrs. Urquhart were virtually as far beyond my reach as if they were already in New York, I became conscious of a great uneasiness. This was the more strange in that there seemed to be no especial cause for it. They had left my house in apparently better spirits than they had entered it, and there was no longer any reason why I should concern myself about them. And yet I did concern myself, and came into the house and into the room they had just vacated, with feelings so unusual that I was astonished at myself, and not a little provoked. I had a vague feeling that the woman who had just left was somehow different from the one I had seen the night before.
But I am a busy woman, and I do not think I should have let this trouble me long if it had not been for Burritt. But when he came into the room after me, and shut the door behind him and stood with his back against it, looking at me, I knew I was not the only one who felt uncomfortable about the Urquharts. Rising from the chair where I had been sitting, counting the cost of fitting up that room so as to make it look habitable, I went toward him and met his gaze pretty sharply.
“Well, what is it?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” was the somewhat sullen reply. “I don’t feel right about those folks, and yet —” He stopped and scratched his head —“I don’t know what I’m afraid of. Are you sure they left nothing behind them?”
The last words were uttered in such a tone I did not know for a minute what to say.
“Left anything behind them!” I replied. “They left their money, if that is what you mean. I don’t know what else they could have left.”
Notwithstanding which assertion, I involuntarily glanced about the room as if half expecting to see some one of their many belongings protruding from a hitherto unsearched corner. His gaze followed mine, but presently returned, and we stood again looking at each other.
“Nothing here,” said I.
“Where is it, then?” he asked.
I frowned in displeasure.
“Where is what?” I demanded. “You speak like a fool. Explain yourself.”
He took a step toward me and lowered his voice. Every one knows Burritt, so I need not describe him. You can all imagine how he looked when he said:
“Did you see me handling of the big box, ma’am?”
I nodded yes.
“Saw how I was the one to help carry it in, and also how I was the one to first take hold on it when he wanted it carried out?” I again nodded yes.
“Well, ma’am, that box was a heavy load to lift into the wagon, but, ma’am”— here his voice became quite sepulchral —“it wasn’t as heavy as it was when we lifted it out, and it hadn’t the same feel either. Now, what had happened to it, and where is the stuff he took out of it?”
I own I had never in my life felt creepy before that minute. But with his eyes staring at me so impressively, and his voice sunk to a depth that made me lean forward to hear what he had to say, I do declare I felt as if an icy breath had been blown across the roots of my hair.
“Burritt, you want to frighten me,” I exclaimed, as soon as I could get my voice. “The box seemed heavier to you than it did just now. There was no change in it, there could not be, or we should find something here to account for it. Remember you did not sleep last night, and lack of rest makes one fanciful.”
“It does not make a man feel stronger, though, and I tell you the box was not near so heavy to-day as yesterday. Besides, as I said before, it acted differently under the handling. There was something loose in it to-day. Yesterday it was packed tight.”
I shook my head, and tried to throw off the oppression caused by his manner. But seeing his eyes travel to the window, I looked that way too.
“He didn’t carry anything out of the door,” declared Burritt, at this moment, “because I watched it, and I know. But that window is only three feet from the ground, and I remember now that at the instant I first laid my ear to the keyhole, I heard a strange, grating sound just like that of a window being lowered by a very careful hand. Shall I look outside it, ma’am?”
I replied by going quickly to the window myself, lifting it, which I did with very little trouble, and glancing out. The familiar garden, with its path to the river, lay before me; but though I allowed myself one quick look in its direction, it was to the ground immediately beneath the window that I turned my attention, and it was here that I instantly, and to the satisfaction of both Burritt and myself, discovered unmistakable signs of disturbance. Not only was there the impression of a finely booted foot imprinted in the loose earth, but there was a large stone lying against the house which we were both confident had not been there the day before.
“He went roaming through the garden last night,” cried Burritt, “and he brought back that stone. Why?”
I shuddered instead of replying. Then remembering that I had seen the young wife well and happy only a few minutes before, felt confused and mystified beyond any power to express.
“I will have a look at that stone,” continued Burritt; and without waiting for my sanction, he vaulted out of the window and lifted the stone.
After a moment’s consideration of it he declared:
“It came from the river bank; that is all I can make out of it.”
And dropping the stone from his hand, he suddenly darted down the path to the river.
He was not gone long. When he came back, he looked still more doubtful than before.
“If I know that bank,” he declared, “there has been more than one stone taken from it, and some dirt. Suppose we examine the floor, ma’am.”
We did so, and just where the box had been placed we discovered some particles of sand that were not brought in from the road.
“What does it mean?” I cried.
Burritt did not answer. He was looking out toward the river. Suddenly he turned his eyes upon me and said in his former suppressed tone:
“He filled the box with stone and earth, and these were what we carried out and put into the wagon. But it was full when it came, and very heavy. Now, what was it filled with, and what has become of the stuff?”
It was the question then; it is the question now.
Burritt hints at crime, and has gone so far as to spend all the afternoon searching the river banks. But he has discovered nothing, nor can he explain what it was he looked for or expected to find. Nor are my own thoughts and feelings any clearer. I remember that the times are unsettled, that the spirit of revolution is in the air, and try to be charitable enough to suppose that it was treasure the young husband brought with him, and that all the perturbation and distress which I imagine myself to have witnessed in his behavior and that of his wife were owing to the purpose that they had formed of burying, in this spot, the silver and plate which they were perhaps unwilling to risk to the chances of war. But when I try to stifle my graver fears with this surmise, I recall the fearful nature of the shriek which startled me from my sleep, and repeat, tremblingly, to myself:
“Some one was in mortal agony at the moment I heard that cry. Was it the young wife, or was it —”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50