This name once mentioned called for more gossip, but of a somewhat different nature.
“The Lucetta of to-day is not like her ancient namesake,” observed Mrs. Carter. “She may have the heart to love, but she is not capable of showing that love by any act of daring.”
“I don’t know about that,” I replied, astonished that I felt willing to enter into a discussion with this woman on the very subject I had just shrunk from talking over with the locksmith. “Girls as frail and nervous as she is, sometimes astonish one at a pinch. I do not think Lucetta lacks daring.”
“You don’t know her. Why, I have seen her jump at the sight of a spider, and heaven knows that they are common enough among the decaying walls in which she lives. A puny chit, Miss Butterworth; pretty enough, but weak. The very kind to draw lovers, but not to hold them. Yet every one pities her, her smile is so heart-broken.”
“With ghosts to trouble her and a lover to bemoan, she has surely some excuse for that,” said I.
“Yes, I don’t deny it. But why has she a lover to bemoan? He seemed a proper man and much beyond the ordinary. Why let him go as she did? Even her sister admits that she loved him.”
“I am not acquainted with the circumstances,” I suggested.
“Well, there isn’t much of a story to it. He is a young man from over the mountains, well educated, and with something of a fortune of his own. He came here to visit the Spears, I believe, and seeing Lucetta leaning one day on the gate in front of her house, he fell in love with her and began to pay her his attentions. That was before the lane got its present bad name, but not before one or two men had vanished from among us. William — that is her brother, you know — has always been anxious to have his sisters marry, so he did not stand in the way, and no more did Miss Knollys, but after two or three weeks of doubtful courtship, the young man went away, and that was the end of it. And a great pity, too, say I, for once clear of that house, Lucetta would grow into another person. Sunshine and love are necessities to most women, Miss Butterworth, especially to such as are weakly and timid.”
I thought the qualification excellent.
“You are right,” I assented, “and I should like to see the result of them upon Lucetta.” Then, with an attempt to still further sound this woman’s mind and with it the united mind of the whole village, I remarked: “The young do not usually throw aside such prospects without excellent reasons. Have you never thought that Lucetta was governed by principle in discarding this very excellent young man?”
“Principle? What principle could she have had in letting a desirable husband go?”
“She may have thought the match an undesirable one for him.”
“For him? Well, I never thought of that. True, she may. They are known to be poor, but poverty don’t count in such old families as theirs. I hardly think she would be influenced by any such consideration. Now, if this had happened since the lane got its bad name and all this stir had been made about the disappearance of certain folks within its precincts, I might have given some weight to your suggestion — women are so queer. But this happened long ago and at a time when the family was highly thought of, leastwise the girls, for William does not go for much, you know — too stupid and too brutal.”
William! Would the utterance of that name heighten my suggestion? I surveyed her closely, but could detect no change in her somewhat puzzled countenance.
“My allusions were not in reference to the disappearances,” said I. “I was thinking of something else. Lucetta is not well.”
“Ah, I know! They say she has some kind of heart complaint, but that was not true then. Why, her cheeks were like roses in those days, and her figure as plump and pretty as any you could see among our village beauties. No, Miss Butterworth, it was through her weakness she lost him. She probably palled upon his taste. It was noticed that he held his head very high in going out of town.”
“Has he married since?” I asked.
“Not to my knowledge, ma’am.”
“Then he loved her,” I declared.
She looked at me quite curiously. Doubtless that word sounds a little queer on my lips, but that shall not deter me from using it when the circumstances seem to require. Besides, there was once a time — But there, I promised to fall into no digressions.
“You should have been married yourself, Miss Butterworth,” said she.
I was amazed, first at her daring, and secondly that I was so little angry at this sudden turning of the tables upon myself. But then the woman meant no offence, rather intended a compliment.
“I am very well contented as I am,” I returned. “I am neither sickly nor timid.”
She smiled, looked as if she thought it only common politeness to agree with me, and tried to say so, but finding the situation too much for her, coughed and discreetly held her peace. I came to her rescue with a new question:
“Have the women of the Knollys family ever been successful in love? The mother of these girls, say — she who was Miss Althea Burroughs — was her life with her husband happy? I have always been curious to know. She and I were schoolmates.”
“You were? You knew Althea Knollys when she was a girl? Wasn’t she charming, ma’am? Did you ever see a livelier girl or one with more knack at winning affection? Why, she couldn’t sit down with you a half-hour before you felt like sharing everything you had with her. It made no difference whether you were man or woman, it was all the same. She had but to turn those mischievous, pleading eyes upon you for you to become a fool at once. Yet her end was sad, ma’am; too sad, when you remember that she died at the very height of her beauty alone and in a foreign land. But I have not answered your question. Were she and the judge happy together? I have never heard to the contrary, ma’am. I’m sure he mourned her faithfully enough. Some think that her loss killed him. He did not survive her more than three years.”
“The children do not favor her much,” said I, “but I see an expression now and then in Lucetta which reminds me of her mother.”
“They are all Knollys,” said she. “Even William has traits which, with a few more brains back of them, would remind you of his grandfather, who was the plainest of his race.”
I was glad that the talk had reverted to William.
“He seems to lack heart, as well as brains,” I said. “I marvel that his sisters put up with him as well as they do.”
“They cannot help it. He is not a fellow to be fooled with. Besides, he holds third share in the house. If they could sell it! But, deary me, who would buy an old tumble-down place like that, on a road you cannot get folks who have any consideration for their lives to enter for love or money? But excuse me, ma’am; I forgot that you are living just now on that very road. I’m sure I beg a thousand pardons.”
“I am living there as a guest,” I returned. “I have nothing to do with its reputation — except to brave it.”
“A courageous thing to do, ma’am, and one that may do the road some good. If you can spend a month with the Knollys girls and come out of their house at the end as hale and hearty as you entered it, it will be the best proof possible that there is less to be feared there than some people think. I shall be glad if you can do it, ma’am, for I like the girls and would be glad to have the reputation of the place restored.”
“Pshaw!” was my final comment. “The credulity of the town has had as much to do with its loss as they themselves. That educated people such as I see here should believe in ghosts!”
I say final, for at this moment the good lady, springing up, put an end to our conversation. She had just seen a buggy pass the window.
“It’s Mr. Trohm,” she exclaimed. “Ma’am, if you wish to return home before Mr. Simsbury comes back you may be able to do so with this gentleman. He’s a most obliging man, and lives less than a quarter of a mile from the Misses Knollys.”
I did not say I had already met the gentleman. Why, I do not know. I only drew myself up and waited with some small inner perturbation for the result of the inquiry I saw she had gone to make.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55