APRIL 3, 1791.
It is sixteen years since I wrote the preceding chapters of this history of mystery and crime. When the pen dropped from my hand — why did it drop? Was it because of some noise I heard?
I imagine so now, and tremble. I did not anticipate ever adding a line to the words I had written. The impulse which had led me to put upon paper my doubts concerning the two Urquharts soon passed, and as nothing ever occurred to recall this couple to my mind, I gradually allowed their name and memory to vanish from my thoughts, only remembering them when chance led me into the oak parlor. Then, indeed, I recollected their manner and my fears, and then I also felt repeated, though every time with fainter and fainter power, the old thrill of undefined terror which stopped my record of that day with the half-finished question as to who had uttered the shriek that had startled me the night before. To-day I again take up my pen. Why? Because to-day, and only since to-day, can I answer this question.
Sixteen years ago! which makes me sixteen years older. My house, too, has aged, and the oak parlor — I never refurnished it — is darker, gloomier, and more forbidding than it was then, and in truth, why should it not be? When I remember what was revealed to me a week ago, I wonder that its walls did not drop fungi, and its chill strike death through the man or woman who was brave enough to enter it. Horrible, horrible room! You shall be torn from my house if the rest of the structure goes with you. Neither I nor another shall ever enter your fatal portal again.
It was a week ago to-day that the coach from New York set down at my door a stranger of fine and quaint appearance, whose white hair betokened him to be aged, but whose alert and energetic movements showed that, if he had passed the line of fourscore, he had still enough of the fire of youth remaining to make his presence welcome in whatever place he chose to enter. As had happened sixteen years before, I was looking out of the window when the coach drove up, and, being at once attracted by the stranger’s person and manner, I watched him closely while he was alighting, and was surprised to observe what intent and searching glances he cast at the house.
“He could not be more interested if he were returning to the home of his fathers,” I murmured involuntarily to myself, and hastened to the door in order to receive him.
He came forward courteously. But after the first few words between us he turned again and gazed with marked curiosity up and down the road and again at the house.
“You seem to be acquainted with these parts,” I ventured. He smiled.
“This is an old house,” he answered, “and you are young.” (I am fifty-five.) “There must have been owners of the place before you. Do you know their names?”
“I bought the place of Dan Forsyth, and he of one Hammond. I don’t know as I can go back any further than that. Originally the house was the property of an Englishman. There were strange stories about him, but it was so long ago that they are almost forgotten.”
The stranger smiled again, and followed me into the house. Here his interest seemed to redouble.
Instantly a thought flashed through my brain.
“He is its ancient owner, the Englishman. I am standing in the presence of —”
“You wish to know my name,” interrupted his genial voice. “It is Tamworth. I am a Virginian, and hope to stay at your inn one night. What kind of a room have you to offer me?”
There was a twinkle in his eyes I did not understand. He was looking down the hall, and I thought his gaze rested on the corridor leading to the oak parlor.
“I should like to sleep on the ground floor,” he added.
“I have but one room,” I began.
“And one is all I want,” he smiled. Then, with a quick glance at my face: “I suppose you are a little particular whom you put into the oak parlor. It is not every one who can appreciate such romantic surroundings.”
I surveyed him, completely puzzled. Whereupon he looked at me with an expression of surprise and incredulity that added to the mystery of the moment.
“The room is gloomy and uninviting,” I declared; “but beyond that, I do not know of any especial claim it has upon our interest.”
“You astonish me,” was his evidently sincere reply; and he walked on, very thoughtfully, straight to the room of which we were speaking. At the door he paused. “Don’t you know the secret of this room,” he asked, giving me a very bright and searching glance.
“If you mean anything concerning the Urquharts,” I began doubtfully.
“Urquharts!” he carelessly repeated. “I do not know anything about them. I am speaking of an old tradition. I was told — let me see how long it is now — well, it must be sixteen years at least — that this house contained a hidden chamber communicating with a certain oak parlor in the west wing. I thought it was curious, and — Why, madam, I beg your pardon; I did not mean to distress you. Can it be possible that you were ignorant of this fact? — you, the owner of this house!”
“Are you sure it is a fact?” I gasped. I was trembling in every limb, but managed to close the door behind us before I sank into a chair. “I have lived in this house twenty years. I know its rooms and halls as I do my own face, and never, never have I suspected that there was a nook or corner in it which was not open to the light of day. Yet — yet it is true that the rooms on this floor are smaller than those above, this one especially.” And I cast a horrified glance about me, that reminded me, even against my will, of the searching and peculiar look I had seen cast in the same direction by Mr. Urquhart sixteen years before.
“I see that I have stumbled upon a bit of knowledge that has been kept from the purchasers of this property,” observed the old gentleman. “Well, that does not detract from the interest of the occasion. When I knew I was to pass this way, I said to myself I shall certainly stop at the old inn with the secret chamber in it, but I did not think I should be the first one to disclose its secret to the present generation. But my information seems to affect you strangely. Is it such a disturbing thing to find that one’s house has held a disused spot within it, that might have been made useful if you had known of its existence?”
I could not answer. I was enveloped in a strange horror, and was only conscious of the one wish — that Burritt had lived to help me through the dreadful hour I saw before me.
“Let us see if my information has been correct,” continued Mr. Tamworth. “Perhaps there has been some mistake. The secret chamber, if there is one, should be behind this chimney. Shall I hunt for an opening?”
I managed to shake my head. I had not strength for the experiment yet. I wanted to prepare myself.
“Tell me first how you heard about this room?” I entreated.
He drew his chair nearer to mine with the greatest courtesy.
“There is no reason why I should not tell you,” replied he, “and as I see that you are in no mood for a long story, I shall make my words as few as possible. Some years ago I had occasion to spend a night in an inn not unlike this, on Long Island. I was alone, but there was a merry crowd in the tap room, and being fond of good company, I presently found myself joining in the conversation. The talk was of inns, and many a stirring story of adventure in out-of-the-way taverns did I listen to that night before the clock struck twelve. Each man present had some humorous or thrilling experience to relate, with the exception of a certain glum and dark-browed gentleman, who sat somewhat apart from the rest, and who said nothing. His reticence was in such marked contrast to the volubility about him that he finally attracted universal attention, and more than one of the merry-makers near him asked if he had not some anecdote to add to the rest. But though he replied with sufficient politeness, it was evident that he had no intention of dropping his reserve, and it was not till the party had broken up and the room was nearly cleared that he deigned to address any one. Then he turned to me, and with a very peculiar smile, remarked:
“‘A dull collection of tales, sir. Bah! if they had wanted to hear of an inn that was really romantic, I could have told them —’
“‘What?’ I involuntarily ejaculated. ‘You will not torture me by suggesting a mystery you will not explain.’
“He looked very indifferent.
“‘It is nothing,’ he declared, ‘only I know of an inn — at least it is used for an inn now — which has in its interior a secret chamber so deftly hidden away in the very heart of the house that I doubt if even its present owner could find it without the minutest directions from the man who saw it built. I knew that man. He was an Englishman, and he had a fancy to make his fortune through the aid of smuggled goods. He did it; and though always suspected, was never convicted, owing to the fact that he kept all his goods in this hidden room. The place is sold now, but the room remains. I wonder if any forgotten treasures lie in it. Imagination could easily run riot over the supposition, do you not think so, sir?’
“I certainly did, especially as I imagined myself to detect in every line of his able and crafty face that he bore a closer relation to the Englishman than he would have me believe. I did not betray my feelings, however, but urged him to tell me how in a modern house, a room, or even a closet, could be so concealed as not to awaken any one’s suspicion. He answered by taking out pencil and paper, and showing me, by a few lines, the secret of its construction. Then seeing me deeply interested, he went on to say:
“‘We find what we have been told to search for; but here is a case where the secret has been so well kept that in all possibility the question of this room’s existence has never arisen. It is just as well.’
“Meantime I was studying the plan.
“‘The hidden chamber lies,’ said I, ‘between this room,’ designating one with my forefinger, ‘and these two others. From which is it entered?’
“He pointed at the one I had first indicated.
“‘From this,’ he affirmed. ‘And a quaint, old-fashioned room it is, too, with a wainscoting of oak all around it as high as a man’s head. It used to be called the oak parlor, and many a time has its floor rung to the tread of the king’s soldiers, who, disappointed in their search for hidden goods, consented to take a drink at their host’s expense, little recking that, but a few feet away, behind the carven chimneypiece upon which they doubtless set down their glasses, there lay heaps and heaps of the richest goods, only awaiting their own departure to be scattered through the length and breadth of the land.’
“‘And this house is now an inn?’ I remarked.
“‘Curious. I should like nothing better than to visit that inn.’
“‘You doubtless have.’
“‘It is not this one?’ I suddenly cried, looking uneasily about me.
“‘Oh, no; it is on the Hudson River, not fifty miles this side of Albany. It is called the Happy–Go-Lucky, and is in a woman’s hands at present; but it prospers, I believe. Perhaps because she has discovered the secret, and knows where to keep her stores.’ And with a shrug of his shoulders he dismissed the subject, with the remark: ‘I don’t know why I told you of this. I never made it the subject of conversation before in my life.’
“This was just before the outbreak in Lexington, sixteen years ago, ma’am, and this is the first time I have found myself in this region since that day. But I have never forgotten this story of a secret room, and when I took the coach this morning I made up my mind that I would spend the night here, and, if possible, see the famous oak parlor, with its mysterious adjunct; never dreaming that in all these years of your occupancy you would have remained as ignorant of its existence as he hinted and you have now declared.”
Mr. Tamworth paused, looking so benevolent that I summoned up my courage, and quietly informed him that he had not told me what kind of a looking man this stranger was.
“Was he young?” I asked. “Had he a blond complexion?”
“On the contrary,” interrupted Mr. Tamworth, “he was very dark, and, in years, as old or nearly as old as myself.”
I was disappointed. I had expected a different reply. As he talked of the stranger, I had, rightfully or wrongfully, with reason or without reason, seen before me the face of Mr. Urquhart, and this description of a dark and well-nigh aged man completely disconcerted me.
“Are you certain this man was not in disguise?” I asked.
“Are you certain that he was not young, and blond, and —”
“Quite sure,” was the dry interruption. “No disguise could transform a young blood into the man I saw that night. May I ask —”
In my turn I interrupted him. “Pardon me,” I entreated, “but an anxiety I will presently explain forces another question from me. Were you and this stranger alone in the room when you held this conversation? You say that it had been full a few minutes before. Were there none of the crowd remaining besides your two selves?”
Mr. Tamworth looked thoughtful. “It is sixteen years ago,” he replied, “but I have a dim remembrance of a man sitting at a table somewhat near us, with his face thrown forward on his arms. He seemed to be asleep; I did not notice him particularly.”
“Did you not see his face?”
“Was he young?”
“I should say so.”
“That I cannot say.”
“And he remained in that attitude all the time you were talking?”
“And continued so when you left the room?”
“I think so.”
“Was he within earshot? Near enough to hear all you said?”
“Most assuredly, if he listened.”
“Mr. Tamworth,” I now entreated, “try, if possible, to remember one other fact. If each man present told a story that night, you must have had ample opportunity of noting each man’s face and observing how he looked. Now, of all that sat in the room, was there not one of an age not exceeding thirty-five, of fair complexion and gentlemanly appearance, yet with a dangerous look in his small blue eye, and a something in his smile that took all the merriment out of it?”
“A short but telling description,” commented my guest. “Let me see. Was there such a man among them? Really, I cannot remember.”
“Think, think. Hair very thin above the temples, mustache heavy. When he spoke he invariably moved his hands; seemed to be nervous, and anxious to hide it.”
“I see him,” was Mr. Tamworth’s sudden remark. “That description of his hands recalls him to my mind. Yes; there was such a man in the room that night. I even recollect his story. It was coarse, but not without wit.”
I advanced and surveyed Mr. Tamworth very earnestly. “The man you thought asleep — the man who was near enough to hear all the Englishman said — was he or was he not the same we have just been talking about?”
“I never thought of it before, but he did look something like him — his figure, I mean; I did not see his face.”
“It was he,” I murmured, with intense conviction, “and the villain —” But how did I know he was a villain? I paused and pointed to the huge mantel guarding the fireplace. “If you know how to enter the secret room, do so. Only I should like to have a few witnesses present besides myself. Will you wait till I call one or two of my lodgers?”
He bowed with great urbanity. “If you wish to make the discovery public,” said he, “I, of course, have no objection.”
But I saw that he was disappointed.
“I can never confront the secret of that room alone,” I insisted. “I must have Dr. Kenyon here at least.” And without waiting for my impulses to cool, I sent a message to the doctor’s room, and was rewarded in a moment by the appearance at the door of that excellent man.
It did not take many words for me to explain to him our intentions. We were going to search for a secret chamber which we had been told opened into the room in which we then found ourselves. As I did not wish to make any mystery of the affair, and as I naturally had my doubts as to what the room might disclose, I asked the support of his presence.
He was gratified — the doctor always is gratified at any token of appreciation — and perceiving that I had no further reason for delay, I motioned to Mr. Tamworth to proceed.
How he discovered the one movable panel in that old-fashioned wainscoting, I have never inquired. When I saw him turn toward the fireplace and lay his ear to the wall, I withdrew in haste to the window, feeling as if I could not bear to watch him, or be the first to catch a glimpse of the mysterious depths which in another moment must open before his touch. What I feared I cannot say. As far as I could reason on the subject, I had no cause to fear anything; and yet my shaking frame and unevenly throbbing heart were but the too sure tokens of an excessive and uncontrollable agitation. The view from the window increased it. Before me lay the river from whose banks sand and stone had been taken sixteen years before to replace — what? I knew no more this minute than I did then. I might know in the next. By the faint tapping that came to my ears I must — and it was this thought that sent a chill through me, and made it so difficult for me to stand. And yet why should it? Was not that old theory of ours, that the Urquharts had brought treasure in their great box, still a plausible one? Nay, more, was it not even a probable one, since we had discovered that the house held so excellent a hiding place, unknown to the world at large, but known to this man, as Mr. Tamworth’s story so plainly showed? Yes; and yet I started with uncontrollable forebodings, when I heard an exclamation of satisfaction behind me, and hardly found courage to turn around, even when I knew that an opening had been effected, and that they were only waiting for my approach to enter it.
And it took courage, both on my part and on theirs; for the air which rushed from the high and narrow slit of darkness before us was stifling and almost deadly. But in a few minutes, after one or two experiments with a lighted candle, Dr. Kenyon stepped through the opening, followed by Mr. Tamworth, and, in a long minute afterward, by myself.
Shall I ever forget my emotions as I looked about me and saw, by the lamp which the doctor carried, nothing more startling than an old oak chest in one corner, a pile of faded clothing in another, and in a third — Heavens! what is it? We all stare, and then a shriek escapes my lips as piercing and terror-stricken as any that ever disturbed those fearful shadows; and I rush blindly from the spot, followed by Mr. Tamworth, whose face, as I turn to look at him, gives me another pang of fear, so white and sick it looks in the sudden glare of day.
Worse than I had thought, worse than I had dreamed! I cannot speak, and fall into a chair, waiting in mortal terror for the doctor, who stayed some minutes behind. When his kindly but not undisturbed countenance showed itself again in the gap at the side of the fireplace, I could almost have thrown myself at his feet.
“What is it?” I gasped. “Tell me at once. Is it a man or a woman or —”
“It is a woman. See! here is a lock of her hair. Beautiful, is it not? She must have been young.”
I stared at it like one demented. It was of a peculiar reddish-brown, with a strange little kink and curl in it. Where had I seen such hair before? Somewhere. I remembered perfectly how the whole bright head looked with the firelight playing over it. Oh, no, no, no, it was not that of Mrs. Urquhart. Mrs. Urquhart went away from this house well and happy. I am mad, or this strand of gleaming hair is a dream. It is not her head it recalls to me, and yet — my soul, it is!
The doctor, knowing me well, did not try to break the silence of that first grewsome minute. But when he saw me ready to speak, he remarked:
“It is an old crime, perpetrated, probably, before you came into the house. I would not make any more of it than you can help, Mrs. Truax.”
I scarcely heeded him.
“Is there no bit of clothing or jewelry left upon her by which we might hope to identify her?” I asked, shuddering, as I caught Mr. Tamworth’s eye, and realized the nature of the doubts I there beheld.
“Here is a ring I found upon the wedding finger,” he replied. “It was doubtless too small to be drawn off at the time of her death, but it came away easily enough now.”
And he held out a plain gold circlet which I eagerly took, looked at, and fell at their feet as senseless as a stone.
On the inner surface I had discovered this legend:
E. U. to H. D. Jan. 27, 1775.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55