“I fled and cried out death.”
The voice was low and searching; it reached me in my dreams, waked me, and caused me to look up. Morning had begun to break, and by its light I saw, standing in the open door leading into the dining-room, the forlorn figure of the tramp who had been admitted into the house the night before. Angry and perplexed, I was about to bid her be gone, when, to my great surprise, she pulled out a red handkerchief from her pocket, and I recognized Q.
“Read that,” said he, hastily advancing and putting a slip of paper into my hand. And, without another word or look, left the room, closing the door behind him.
Rising in considerable agitation, I took it to the window, and by the rapidly increasing light, succeeded in making out the rudely scrawled lines as follows:
“She is here; I have seen her; in the room marked with a cross in the accompanying plan. Wait till eight o’clock, then go up. I will contrive some means of getting Mrs. B—— out of the house.”
Sketched below this was the following plan of the upper floor:
Hannah, then, was in the small back room over the dining-room, and I had not been deceived in thinking I had heard steps overhead, the evening before. Greatly relieved, and yet at the same time much moved at the near prospect of being brought face to face with one who we had every reason to believe was acquainted with the dreadful secret involved in the Leavenworth murder, I lay down once more, and endeavored to catch another hour’s rest. But I soon gave up the effort in despair, and contented myself with listening to the sounds of awakening life which now began to make themselves heard in the house and neighborhood.
As Q had closed the door after him, I could only faintly hear Mrs. Belden when she came down-stairs. But the short, surprised exclamation which she uttered upon reaching the kitchen and finding the tramp gone and the back-door wide open, came plainly enough to my ears, and for a moment I was not sure but that Q had made a mistake in thus leaving so unceremoniously. But he had not studied Mrs. Belden’s character in vain. As she came, in the course of her preparations for breakfast, into the room adjoining mine, I could hear her murmur to herself:
“Poor thing! She has lived so long in the fields and at the roadside, she finds it unnatural to be cooped up in the house all night.”
The trial of that breakfast! The effort to eat and appear unconcerned, to chat and make no mistake — may I never be called upon to go through such another! But at last it was over, and I was left free to await in my own room the time for the dreaded though much-to-bedesired interview. Slowly the minutes passed; eight o’clock struck, when, just as the last vibration ceased, there came a loud knock at the backdoor, and a little boy burst into the kitchen, crying at the top of his voice: “Papa’s got a fit! Oh, Mrs. Belden! papa’s got a fit; do come!”
Rising, as was natural, I hastened towards the kitchen, meeting Mrs. Belden’s anxious face in the doorway.
“A poor wood-chopper down the street has fallen in a fit,” she said. “Will you please watch over the house while I see what I can do for him? I won’t be absent any longer than I can help.”
And almost without waiting for my reply, she caught up a shawl, threw it over her head, and followed the urchin, who was in a state of great excitement, out into the street.
Instantly the silence of death seemed to fill the house, and a dread the greatest I had ever experienced settled upon me. To leave the kitchen, go up those stairs, and confront that girl seemed for the moment beyond my power; but, once on the stair, I found myself relieved from the especial dread which had overwhelmed me, and possessed, instead, of a sort of combative curiosity that led me to throw open the door which I saw at the top with a certain fierceness new to my nature, and not altogether suitable, perhaps, to the occasion.
I found myself in a large bedroom, evidently the one occupied by Mrs. Belden the night before. Barely stopping to note certain evidences of her having passed a restless night, I passed on to the door leading into the room marked with a cross in the plan drawn for me by Q. It was a rough affair, made of pine boards rudely painted. Pausing before it, I listened. All was still. Raising the latch, I endeavored to enter. The door was locked. Pausing again, I bent my ear to the keyhole. Not a sound came from within; the grave itself could not have been stiller. Awe-struck and irresolute, I looked about me and questioned what I had best do. Suddenly I remembered that, in the plan Q had given me, I had seen intimation of another door leading into this same room from the one on the opposite side of the hall. Going hastily around to it, I tried it with my hand. But it was as fast as the other. Convinced at last that nothing was left me but force, I spoke for the first time, and, calling the girl by name, commanded her to open the door. Receiving no response, I said aloud with an accent of severity:
“Hannah Chester, you are discovered; if you do not open the door, we shall be obliged to break it down; save us the trouble, then, and open immediately.”
Still no reply.
Going back a step, I threw my whole weight against the door. It creaked ominously, but still resisted.
Stopping only long enough to be sure no movement had taken place within, I pressed against it once more, this time with all my strength, when it flew from its hinges, and I fell forward into a room so stifling, chill, and dark that I paused for a moment to collect my scattered senses before venturing to look around me. It was well I did so. In another moment, the pallor and fixity of the pretty Irish face staring upon me from amidst the tumbled clothes of a bed, drawn up against the wall at my side, struck me with so deathlike a chill that, had it not been for that one instant of preparation, I should have been seriously dismayed. As it was, I could not prevent a feeling of sickly apprehension from seizing me as I turned towards the silent figure stretched so near, and observed with what marble-like repose it lay beneath the patchwork quilt drawn across it, asking myself if sleep could be indeed so like death in its appearance. For that it was a sleeping woman I beheld, I did not seriously doubt. There were too many evidences of careless life in the room for any other inference. The clothes, left just as she had stepped from them in a circle on the floor; the liberal plate of food placed in waiting for her on the chair by the door, — food amongst which I recognized, even in this casual glance, the same dish which we had had for breakfast — all and everything in the room spoke of robust life and reckless belief in the morrow.
And yet so white was the brow turned up to the bare beams of the unfinished wall above her, so glassy the look of the half-opened eyes, so motionless the arm lying half under, half over, the edge of the coverlid that it was impossible not to shrink from contact with a creature so sunk in unconsciousness. But contact seemed to be necessary; any cry which I could raise at that moment would be ineffectual enough to pierce those dull ears. Nerving myself, therefore, I stooped and lifted the hand which lay with its telltale scar mockingly uppermost, intending to speak, call, do something, anything, to arouse her. But at the first touch of her hand on mine an unspeakable horror thrilled me. It was not only icy cold, but stiff. Dropping it in my agitation, I started back and again surveyed the face. Great God! when did life ever look like that? What sleep ever wore such pallid hues, such accusing fixedness? Bending once more I listened at the lips. Not a breath, nor a stir. Shocked to the core of my being, I made one final effort. Tearing down the clothes, I laid my hand upon her heart. It was pulseless as stone.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55