Mr. Simsbury gave me quite an amiable bow as I entered the buggy. This made it easy for me to say:
“You are on hand early this morning. Do you sleep in the Knollys house?”
The stare he gave me had the least bit of suspicion in it.
“I live over yonder,” he said, pointing with his whip across the intervening woods to the main road. “I come through the marshes to my breakfast; my old woman says they owes me three meals, and three meals I must have.”
It was the longest sentence with which he had honored me. Finding him in a talkative mood, I prepared to make myself agreeable, a proceeding which he seemed to appreciate, for he began to sniff and pay great attention to his horse, which he was elaborately turning about.
“Why do you go that way?” I protested. “Isn’t it the longest way to the village?”
“It’s the way I’m most accustomed to,” said he. “But we can go the other way if you like. Perhaps we will get a glimpse of Deacon Spear. He’s a widower, you know.”
The leer with which he said this was intolerable. I bridled up — but no, I will not admit that I so much as manifested by my manner that I understood him. I merely expressed my wish to go the old way.
He whipped up the horse at once, almost laughing outright. I began to think this man capable of most any wicked deed. He was forced, however, to pull up suddenly. Directly in our path was the stooping figure of a woman. She did not move as we advanced, and so we had no alternative but to stop. Not till the horse’s head touched her shoulder did she move. Then she rose up and looked at us somewhat indignantly.
“Didn’t you hear us?” I asked, willing to open conversation with the old crone, whom I had no difficulty in recognizing as Mother Jane.
“She’s deaf — deaf, as a post,” muttered Mr. Simsbury. “No use shouting at her.” His tone was brusque, yet I noticed he waited with great patience for her to hobble out of the way.
Meanwhile I was watching the old creature with much interest. She had not a common face or a common manner. She was gray, she was toothless, she was haggard, and she was bent, but she was not ordinary or just one of the crowd of old women to be seen on country doorsteps. There was force in her aged movements and a strong individuality in the glances she shot at us as she backed slowly out of the roadway.
“Do they say she is imbecile?” I asked. “She looks far from foolish to me.”
“Hearken a bit,” said he. “Don’t you see she is muttering? She talks to herself all the time.” And in fact her lips were moving.
“I cannot hear her,” I said. “Make her come nearer. Somehow the old creature interests me.”
He at once beckoned to the crone; but he might as well have beckoned to the tree against which she had pushed herself. She neither answered him nor gave any indication that she understood the gesture he had made. Yet her eyes never moved from our faces.
“Well, well,” said I, “she seems dull as well as deaf. You had better drive on.” But before he could give the necessary jerk of the reins, I caught sight of some pennyroyal growing about the front of the cottage a few steps beyond, and, pointing to it with some eagerness, I cried: “If there isn’t some of the very herb I want to take home with me! Do you think she would give me a handful of it if I paid her?”
With an obliging grunt he again pulled up. “If you can make her understand,” said he.
I thought it worth the effort. Though Mr. Gryce had been at pains to tell me there was no harm in this woman and that I need not even consider her in any inquiries I might be called upon to make, I remembered that Mr. Gryce had sometimes made mistakes in just such matters as these, and that Amelia Butterworth had then felt herself called upon to set him right. If that could happen once, why not twice? At all events, I was not going to lose the least chance of making the acquaintance of the people living in this lane. Had he not himself said that only in this way could we hope to come upon the clue that had eluded all open efforts to find it?
Knowing that the sight of money is the strongest appeal that can be made to one living in such abject poverty as this woman, making the blind to see and the deaf to hear, I drew out my purse and held up before her a piece of silver. She bounded as if she had been shot, and when I held it toward her came greedily forward and stood close beside the wheels looking up.
“For you,” I indicated, after making a motion toward the plant which had attracted my attention.
She glanced from me to the herb and nodded with quick appreciation. As in a flash she seemed to take in the fact that I was a stranger, a city lady with memories of the country and this humble plant, and hurrying to it with the same swiftness she had displayed in advancing to the carriage, she tore off several of the sprays and brought them back to me, holding out her hand for the money.
I had never seen greater eagerness, and I think even Mr. Simsbury was astonished at this proof of her poverty or her greed. I was inclined to think it the latter, for her portly figure was far from looking either ill-fed or poorly cared for. Her dress was of decent calico, and her pipe had evidently been lately filled, for I could smell the odor of tobacco about her. Indeed, as I afterward heard, the good people of X. had never allowed her to suffer. Yet her fingers closed upon that coin as if in it she grasped the salvation of her life, and into her eyes leaped a light that made her look almost young, though she must have been fully eighty.
“What do you suppose she will do with that?” I asked Mr. Simsbury, as she turned away in an evident fear I might repent of my bargain.
“Hark!” was his brief response. “She is talking now.”
I did hearken, and heard these words fall from her quickly moving lips:
“Seventy; twenty-eight; and now ten.”
Jargon; for I had given her twenty-five cents, an amount quite different from any she had mentioned.
“Seventy!” She was repeating the figures again, this time in a tone of almost frenzied elation. “Seventy; twenty-eight; and now ten! Won’t Lizzie be surprised! Seventy; twenty —” I heard no more — she had bounded into her cottage and shut the door.
“Waal, what do you think of her now?” chuckled Mr. Simsbury, touching up his horse. “She’s always like that, saying over numbers, and muttering about Lizzie. Lizzie was her daughter. Forty years ago she ran off with a man from Boston, and for thirty-eight years she’s been lying in a Massachusetts grave. But her mother still thinks she is alive and is coming back. Nothing will ever make her think different. But she’s harmless, perfectly harmless. You needn’t be afeard of her.”
This, because I cast a look behind me of more than ordinary curiosity, I suppose. Why were they all so sure she was harmless? I had thought her expression a little alarming at times, especially when she took the money from my hand. If I had refused it or even held it back a little, I think she would have fallen upon me tooth and nail. I wished I could take a peep into her cottage. Mr. Gryce had described it as four walls and nothing more, and indeed it was small and of the humblest proportions; but the fluttering of some half-dozen pigeons about its eaves proved it to be a home and, as such, of interest to me, who am often able to read character from a person’s habitual surroundings.
There was no yard attached to this simple building, only a small open place in front in which a few of the commonest vegetables grew, such as turnips, carrots, and onions. Elsewhere towered the forest — the great pine forest through which this portion of the road ran.
Mr. Simsbury had been so talkative up to now that I was in hope he would enter into some details about the persons and things we encountered, which might assist me in the acquaintanceship I was anxious to make. But his loquaciousness ended with this small adventure I have just described. Not till we were well quit of the pines and had entered into the main thoroughfare did he deign to respond to any of my suggestions, and then it was in a manner totally unsatisfactory and quite uncommunicative. The only time he deigned to offer a remark was when we emerged from the forest and came upon the little crippled child, looking from its window. Then he cried:
“Why, how’s this? That’s Sue you see there, and her time isn’t till arternoon. Rob allers sits there of a mornin’. I wonder if the little chap’s sick. S’pose I ask.”
As this was just what I would have suggested if he had given me time, I nodded complacently, and we drove up and stopped.
The piping voice of the child at once spoke up:
“How d’ ye do, Mr. Simsbury? Ma’s in the kitchen. Rob isn’t feelin’ good to-day.”
I thought her tone had a touch of mysteriousness in it. I greeted the pale little thing, and asked if Rob was often sick.
“Never,” she answered, “except, like me, he can’t walk. But I’m not to talk about it, ma says. I’d like to, but ——”
Ma’s face appearing at this moment over her shoulder put an end to her innocent garrulity.
“How d’ ye do, Mr. Simsbury?” came a second time from the window, but this time in very different tones. “What’s the child been saying? She’s so sot up at being allowed to take her brother’s place in the winder that she don’t know how to keep her tongue still. Rob’s a little languid, that’s all. You’ll see him in his old place to-morrow.” And she drew back as if in polite intimation that we might drive on.
Mr. Simsbury responded to the suggestion, and in another moment we were trotting down the road. Had we stayed a minute longer, I think the child would have said something more or less interesting to hear.
The horse, which had brought us thus far at a pretty sharp trot, now began to lag, which so attracted Mr. Simsbury’s attention, that he forgot to answer even by a grunt more than half of my questions. He spent most of his time looking at the nag’s hind feet, and finally, just as we came in sight of the stores, he found his tongue sufficiently to announce that the horse was casting a shoe and that he would be obliged to go to the blacksmith’s with her.
“Humph, and how long will that take?” I asked.
He hesitated so long, rubbing his nose with his finger, that I grew suspicious and cast a glance at the horse’s foot myself. The shoe was loose. I began to hear it clang.
“Waal, it may be a matter of a couple of hours,” he finally drawled. “We have no blacksmith in town, and the ride up there is two miles. Sorry it happened, ma’am, but there’s all sorts of shops here, you see, and I’ve allers heard that a woman can easily spend two hours haggling away in shops.”
I glanced at the two ill-furnished windows he pointed out, thought of Arnold & Constable’s, Tiffany’s, and the other New York establishments I had been in the habit of visiting, and suppressed my disdain. Either the man was a fool or he was acting a part in the interests of Lucetta and her family. I rather inclined to the latter supposition. If the plan was to keep me out most of the morning why could that shoe not have been loosened before the mare left the stable?
“I made all necessary purchases while in New York,” said I, “but if you must get the horse shod, why, take her off and do it. I suppose there is a hotel parlor near here where I can sit.”
“Oh, yes,” and he made haste to point out to me where the hotel stood. “And it’s a very nice place, ma’am. Mrs. Carter, the landlady, is the nicest sort of person. Only you won’t try to go home, ma’am, on foot? You’ll wait till I come back for you?”
“It isn’t likely I’ll go streaking through Lost Man’s Lane alone,” I exclaimed indignantly. “I’d rather sit in Mrs. Carter’s parlor till night.”
“And I would advise you to,” he said. “No use making gossip for the village folks. They have enough to talk about as it is.”
Not exactly seeing the force of this reasoning, but quite willing to be left to my own devices for a little while, I pointed to a locksmith’s shop I saw near by, and bade him put me down there.
With a sniff I declined to interpret into a token of disapproval, he drove me up to the shop and awkwardly assisted me to alight.
“Trunk key missing?” he ventured to inquire before getting back into his seat.
I did not think it necessary to reply, but walked immediately into the shop. He looked dissatisfied at this, but whatever his feelings were he refrained from any expression of them, and presently mounted to his place and drove off. I was left confronting the decent man who represented the lock-fitting interests in X.
I found some difficulty in broaching my errand. Finally I said:
“Miss Knollys, who lives up the road, wishes a key fitted to one of her doors. Will you come or send a man to her house to-day? She is too occupied to see about it herself.”
The man must have been struck by my appearance, for he stared at me quite curiously for a minute. Then he gave a hem and a haw and said:
“Certainly. What kind of a door is it?” When I had answered, he gave me another curious glance and seemed uneasy to step back to where his assistant was working with a file.
“You will be sure to come in time to have the lock fitted before night?” I said in that peremptory manner of mine which means simply, “I keep my promises and expect you to keep yours.”
His “Certainly” struck me as a little weaker this time, possibly because his curiosity was excited. “Are you the lady from New York who is staying with them?” he asked, stepping back, seemingly quite unawed by my positive demeanor.
“Yes,” said I, thawing a trifle; “I am Miss Butterworth.”
He looked at me almost as if I were a curiosity.
“And did you sleep there last night?” he urged.
I thought it best to thaw still more.
“Of course,” I said. “Where do you think I would sleep? The young ladies are friends of mine.”
He rapped abstractedly on the counter with a small key he was holding.
“Excuse me,” said he, with some remembrance of my position toward him as a stranger, “but weren’t you afraid?”
“Afraid?” I echoed. “Afraid in Miss Knollys’ house?”
“Why, then, do you want a key to your door?” he asked, with a slight appearance of excitement. “We don’t lock doors here in the village; at least we didn’t.”
“I did not say it was my door,” I began, but, feeling that this was a prevarication not only unworthy of me, but one that he was entirely too sharp to accept, I added stiffly: “It is for my door. I am not accustomed even at home to sleep with my room unlocked.”
“Oh,” he murmured, totally unconvinced, “I thought you might have got a scare. Folks somehow are afraid of that old place, it’s so big and ghost-like. I don’t think you would find any one in this village who would sleep there all night.”
“A pleasing preparation for my rest to-night,” I grimly laughed. “Dangers on the road and ghosts in the house. Happily I don’t believe in the latter.”
The gesture he made showed incredulity. He had ceased rapping with the key or even to show any wish to join his assistant. All his thoughts for the moment seemed to be concentrated on me.
“You don’t know little Rob,” he inquired, “the crippled lad who lives at the head of the lane?”
“No,” I said; “I haven’t been in town a day yet, but I mean to know Rob and his sister too. Two cripples in one family rouse my interest.”
He did not say why he had spoken of the child, but began tapping with his key again.
“And you are sure you saw nothing?” he whispered. “Lots of things can happen in a lonely road like that.”
“Not if everybody is as afraid to enter it as you say your villagers are,” I retorted.
But he didn’t yield a jot.
“Some folks don’t mind present dangers,” said he. “Spirits ——”
But he received no encouragement in his return to this topic. “You don’t believe in spirits?” said he. “Well, they are doubtful sort of folks, but when honest and respectable people such as live in this town, when children even, see what answers to nothing but phantoms, then I remember what a wiser man than any of us once said —— But perhaps you don’t read Shakespeare, madam?”
Nonplussed for the moment, but interested in the man’s talk more than was consistent with my need of haste, I said with some spirit, for it struck me as very ridiculous that this country mechanic should question my knowledge of the greatest dramatist of all time, “Shakespeare and the Bible form the staple of my reading.” At which he gave me a little nod of apology and hastened to say:
“Then you know what I mean — Hamlet’s remark to Horatio, madam, ‘There are more things,’ etc. Your memory will readily supply you with the words.”
I signified my satisfaction and perfect comprehension of his meaning, and, feeling that something important lay behind his words, I endeavored to make him speak more explicitly.
“The Misses Knollys show no terror of their home,” I observed. “They cannot believe in spirits either.”
“Miss Knollys is a woman of a great deal of character,” said he. “But look at Lucetta. There is a face for you, for a girl not yet out of her twenties; and such a round-cheeked lass as she was once! Now what has made the change? The sights and sounds of that old house, I say. Nothing else would give her that scared look — nothing merely mortal, I mean.”
This was going a step too far. I could not discuss Lucetta with this stranger, anxious as I was to hear what he had to say about her.
“I don’t know,” I remonstrated, taking up my black satin bag, without which I never stir. “One would think the terrors of the lane she lives in might account for some appearance of fear on her part.”
“So it might,” he assented, but with no great heartiness. “But Lucetta has never spoken of those dangers. The people in the lane do not seem to fear them. Even Deacon Spear says that, set aside the wickedness of the thing, he rather enjoys the quiet which the ill repute of the lane gives him. I don’t understand this indifference myself. I have no relish for horrible mysteries or for ghosts either.”
“You won’t forget the key?” I suggested shortly, preparing to walk out, in my dread lest he should again introduce the subject of Lucetta.
“No,” said he, “I won’t forget it.” His tone should have warned me that I need not expect to have a locked door that night.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55