Mr. Trohm did not disappoint my expectations. In another moment I perceived him standing in the open doorway with the most genial smile on his lips.
“Miss Butterworth,” said he, “I feel too honored. If you will deign to accept a seat in my buggy, I shall only be too happy to drive you home.”
I have always liked the manners of country gentlemen. There is just a touch of formality in their bearing which has been quite eliminated from that of their city brothers. I therefore became gracious at once and accepted the seat he offered me without any hesitation.
The heads that showed themselves at the neighboring windows warned us to hasten on our route. Mr. Trohm, with a snap of his whip, touched up his horse, and we rode in dignified calm away from the hotel steps into the wide village street known as the main road. The fact that Mr. Gryce had told me that this was the one man I could trust, joined to my own excellent knowledge of human nature and the persons in whom explicit confidence can be put, made the moment one of great satisfaction to me. I was about to make my appearance at the Knollys mansion two hours before I was expected, and thus outwit Lucetta by means of the one man whose assistance I could conscientiously accept.
We were not slow in beginning conversation. The fine air, the prosperous condition of the town offered themes upon which we found it quite easy to dilate, and so naturally and easily did our acquaintanceship progress that we had turned the corner into Lost Man’s Lane before I quite realized it. The entrance from the village offered a sharp contrast to the one I had already traversed. There it was but a narrow opening between sombre and unduly crowding trees. Here it was the gradual melting of a village street into a narrow and less frequented road, which only after passing Deacon Spear’s house assumed that aspect of wildness which a quarter of a mile farther on deepened into something positively sombre and repellent.
I speak of Deacon Spear because he was sitting on his front doorstep when we rode by. As he was a resident in the lane, I did not fail to take notice of him, though guardedly and with such restraint as a knowledge of his widowed condition rendered both wise and proper.
He was not an agreeable-looking person, at least to me. His hair was sleek, his beard well cared for, his whole person in good if not prosperous condition, but he had the self-satisfied expression I detest, and looked after us with an aspect of surprise I chose to consider a trifle impertinent. Perhaps he envied Mr. Trohm. If so, he may have had good reason for it — it is not for me to judge.
Up to now I had seen only a few scrub bushes at the side of the road, with here and there a solitary poplar to enliven the dead level on either side of us; but after we had ridden by the fence which sets the boundary to the good deacon’s land, I noticed such a change in the appearance of the lane that I could not but exclaim over the natural as well as cultivated beauties which every passing moment was bringing before me.
Mr. Trohm could not conceal his pleasure.
“These are my lands,” said he. “I have bestowed unremitting attention upon them for years. It is my hobby, madam. There is not a tree you see that has not received my careful attention. Yonder orchard was set out by me, and the fruit it yields — Madam, I hope you will remain long enough with us to taste a certain rare and luscious peach that I brought from France a few years ago. It gives promise of reaching its full perfection this year, and I shall be gratified indeed if you can give it your approval.”
This was politeness indeed, especially as I knew what value men like him set upon each individual fruit they watch ripen under their care. Testifying my appreciation of his kindness, I endeavored to introduce another and less harmless and perhaps less personally interesting topic of conversation. The chimneys of his house were beginning to show over the trees, and I had heard nothing from this man on the subject which should have been the most interesting of all to me at this moment. And he was the only person in town I was at liberty to really confide in, and possibly the only man in town who could give me a reliable statement of the reasons why the family I was visiting was regarded in a doubtful light not only by the credulous villagers, but by the New York police. I began by an allusion to the phantom coach.
“I hear,” said I, “that this lane has other claims to attention beyond those afforded by the mysteries connected with it. I hear that it has at times a ghostly visitant in the shape of a spectral horse and carriage.”
“Yes,” he replied, with a seeming understanding that was very flattering; “do not spare the lane one of its honors. It has its nightly horror as well as its daily fear. I wish the one were as unreal as the other.”
“You act as if both were unreal to you,” said I. “The contrast between your appearance and that of some other members of the lane is quite marked.”
“You refer”— he seemed to hate to speak —“to the Misses Knollys, I presume.”
I endeavored to treat the subject lightly.
“To your young enemy, Lucetta,” I smilingly replied.
He had been looking at me in a perfectly modest and respectful manner, but he dropped his eyes at this and busied himself abstractedly, and yet I thought with some intention, in removing a fly from the horse’s flank with the tip of his whip.
“I will not acknowledge her as an enemy,” he quietly returned in strictly modulated tones. “I like the girl too well.”
The fly had been by this time dislodged, but he did not look up.
“And William?” I suggested. “What do you think of William?”
Slowly he straightened himself. Slowly he dropped the whip back into its socket. I thought he was going to answer, when suddenly his whole attitude changed and he turned upon me a beaming face full of nothing but pleasure.
“The road takes a turn here. In another moment you will see my house.” And even while he spoke it burst upon us, and I instantly forgot that I had just ventured on a somewhat hazardous question.
It was such a pretty place, and it was so beautifully and exquisitely kept. There was a charm about its rose-encircled porch that is only to be found in very old places that have been appreciatively cared for. A high fence painted white inclosed a lawn like velvet, and the house itself, shining with a fresh coat of yellow paint, bore signs of comfort in its white-curtained windows not usually to be found in the solitary dwelling of a bachelor. I found my eyes roving over each detail with delight, and almost blushed, or, rather, had I been twenty years younger might have been thought to blush, as I met his eyes and saw how much my pleasure gratified him.
“You must excuse me if I express too much admiration for what I see before me,” I said, with what I have every reason to believe was a highly successful effort to hide my confusion. “I have always had a great leaning towards well-ordered walks and trimly kept flower-beds — a leaning, alas! which I have found myself unable to gratify.”
“Do not apologize,” he hastened to say. “You but redouble my own pleasure in thus honoring my poor efforts with your regard. I have spared no pains, madam, I have spared no pains to render this place beautiful, and most of what you see, I am proud to say, has been accomplished by my own hands.”
“Indeed!” I cried in some surprise, letting my eye rest with satisfaction on the top of a long well-sweep that was one of the picturesque features of the place.
“It may have been folly,” he remarked, with a gloating sweep of his eye over the velvet lawn and flowering shrubs — a peculiar look that seemed to express something more than the mere delight of possession, “but I seemed to begrudge any hired assistance in the tending of plants every one of which seems to me like a personal friend.”
“I understand,” was my somewhat un-Butterworthian reply. I really did not quite know myself. “What a contrast to the dismal grounds at the other end of the lane!”
This was more in my usual vein. He seemed to feel the difference, for his expression changed at my remark.
“Oh, that den!” he exclaimed, bitterly; then, seeing me look a little shocked, he added, with an admirable return to his old manner, “I call any place a den where flowers do not grow.” And jumping from the buggy, he gathered an exquisite bunch of heliotrope, which he pressed upon me. “I love sunshine, beds of roses, fountains, and a sweep of lawn like this we see before us. But do not let me bore you. You have probably lingered long enough at the old bachelor’s place and now would like to drive on. I will be with you in a moment. Doubtful as it is whether I shall soon again be so fortunate as to be able to offer you any hospitality, I would like to bring you a glass of wine — or, for I see your eyes roaming longingly toward my old-fashioned well, would you like a draft of water fresh from the bucket?”
I assured him I did not drink wine, at which I thought his eyes brightened, but that neither did I indulge in water when in a heat, as at present, at which he looked disappointed and came somewhat reluctantly back to the buggy.
He brightened up, however, the moment he was again at my side.
“Now for the woods,” he exclaimed, with what was undoubtedly a forced laugh.
I thought the opportunity one I ought not to slight.
“Do you think,” said I, “that it is in those woods the disappearances occur of which Miss Knollys has told me?”
He showed the same hesitancy as before to enter upon this subject.
“I think the less you allow your mind to dwell on this matter the better,” said he —“that is, if you are going to remain long in this lane. I do not expend any more thought upon it than is barely necessary, or I should not retain sufficient courage to remain among my roses and my fruits. I wonder — pardon me the indiscretion — that you could bring yourself to enter so ill-reputed a neighborhood. You must be a very brave woman.”
“I thought it my duty —” I began. “Althea Knollys was my friend, and I felt I owed a duty toward her children. Besides —” Should I tell Mr. Trohm my real errand in this place? Mr. Gryce had intimated that he was in the confidence of the police, and if so, his assistance in case of necessity might be of inestimable value to me. Yet if no such necessity should arise would I want this man to know that Amelia Butterworth — No, I would not take him into my confidence — not yet. I would only try to get at his idea of where the blame lay — that is, if he had any.
“Besides,” he suggested in polite reminder, after waiting a minute or two for me to continue.
“Did I say besides?” was my innocent rejoinder. “I think I meant that after seeing them my sense of the importance of that duty had increased. William especially seems to be a young man of very doubtful amiability.”
Immediately the non-commital look returned to Mr. Trohm’s face.
“I have no fault to find with William,” said he. “He’s not the most agreeable companion in the world perhaps, but he has a pretty fancy for fruit — a very pretty fancy.”
“One can hardly wonder at that in a neighbor of Mr. Trohm,” said I, watching his look, which was fixed somewhat gloomily upon the forest of trees now rapidly closing in around us.
“Perhaps not, perhaps not, madam. The sight of a blossoming honeysuckle hanging from an arbor such as runs along my south walls is a great stimulant to one’s taste, madam, I’ll not deny that.”
“But William?” I repeated, determined not to let the subject go; “have you never thought he was a little indifferent to his sisters?”
“A little, madam.”
“And a trifle rough to everything but his dogs?”
“A trifle, madam.”
Such reticence seemed unnecessary. I was almost angry, but restrained myself and pursued quietly, “The girls, on the contrary, seem devoted to him?”
“Women have that weakness.”
“And act as if they would do — what would they not do for him?”
“Miss Butterworth, I have never seen a more amiable woman than yourself. Will you promise me one thing?”
His manner was respect itself, his smile genial and highly contagious. I could not help responding to it in the way he expected.
“Do not talk to me about this family. It is a painful subject to me. Lucetta — you know the girl, and I shall not be able to prejudice you against her — has conceived the idea that I encourage William in an intimacy of which she does not approve. She does not want him to talk to me. William has a loose tongue in his head and sometimes drops unguarded words about their doings, which if any but William spoke — But there, I am forgetting one of the most important rules of my own life, which is to keep my mouth from babbling and my tongue from guile. Influence of a congenial companion, madam; it is irresistible sometimes, especially to a man living so much alone as myself.”
I considered his fault very pardonable, but did not say so lest I should frighten his confidences away.
“I thought there was something wrong between you,” I said. “Lucetta acted almost afraid of you this morning. I should think she would be glad of the friendship of so good a neighbor.”
His face took on a very sombre look.
“She is afraid of me,” he admitted, “afraid of what I have seen or may see of — their poverty,” he added, with an odd emphasis. I scarcely think he expected to deceive me.
I did not push the subject an inch farther. I saw it had gone as far as discretion permitted at this time.
We had reached the heart of the forest and were rapidly approaching the Knollys house. As the tops of its great chimneys rose above the foliage, I saw his aspect suddenly change.
“I don’t know why I should so hate to leave you here,” he remarked.
I myself thought the prospect of re-entering the Knollys mansion somewhat uninviting after the pleasant ride I had had and the glimpse which had been given me of a really cheery home and pleasant surroundings.
“This morning I looked upon you as a somewhat daring woman, the progress of whose stay here would be watched by me with interest, but after the companionship of the last half-hour I am conscious of an anxiety in your regard which makes me doubly wish that Miss Knollys had not shut me out from her home. Are you sure you wish to enter this house again, madam?”
I was surprised — really surprised — at the feeling he showed. If my well-disciplined heart had known how to flutter it would probably have fluttered then, but happily the restraint of years did not fail me in this emergency. Taking advantage of the emotion which had betrayed him into an acknowledgment of his real feelings regarding the dangers lurking in this home, despite the check he had endeavored to put upon his lips, I said, with an attempt at naÃ¯vetÃ© only to be excused by the exigencies of the occasion:
“Why, I thought you considered this domicile perfectly harmless. You like the girls and have no fault to find with William. Can it be that this great building has another occupant? I do not allude to ghosts. Neither of us are likely to believe in the supernatural.”
“Miss Butterworth, you have me at a disadvantage. I do not know of any other occupant which the house can hold save the three young people you have mentioned. If I seem to feel any doubt of them — but I don’t feel any doubt. I only dread any place for you which is not watched over by someone interested in your defence. The danger threatening the inhabitants of this lane is such a veiled one. If we knew where it lurked, we would no longer call it danger. Sometimes I think the ghosts you allude to are not as innocent as mere spectres usually are. But don’t let me frighten you. Don’t —” How quick his voice changed! “Ah, William, I have brought back your guest, you see! I couldn’t let her sit out the noon hour in old Carter’s parlor. That would be too much for even so amiable a person as Miss Butterworth to endure.”
I had hardly realized we were so near the gate and certainly was surprised to find William anywhere within hearing. That his appearance at this moment was anything but welcome, must be evident to every one. The sentence which it interrupted might have contained the most important advice, or at the least a warning I could ill afford to lose. But destiny was against me, and being one who accepts the inevitable with good grace, I prepared to alight, with Mr. Trohm’s assistance.
The bunch of heliotrope I held was a little in my way or I should have managed the jump with confidence and dignified agility. As it was, I tripped slightly, which brought out a chuckle from William that at the moment seemed more wicked to me than any crime. Meanwhile he had not let matters proceed thus far without putting more than one question.
“And where’s Simsbury? And why did Miss Butterworth think she had got to sit in Carter’s parlor?”
“Mr. Simsbury,” said I as soon as I could recover from the mingled exertion and embarrassment of my descent to terra firma, “felt it necessary to take the horse to the shoer’s. That is a half-day’s work, as you know, and I felt confident that he and especially you would be glad to have me accept any means for escaping so dreary a waiting.”
The grunt he uttered was eloquent of anything but satisfaction.
“I’ll go tell the girls,” he said. But he didn’t go till he had seen Mr. Trohm enter his buggy and drive slowly off.
That all this did not add to my liking for William goes without saying.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55