Lucetta had said to her departing lover, that in a week she might be able (were he willing or in a position to wait) to give him a more satisfactory answer. Why in a week?
That her hesitation sprang from the mere dislike of leaving her sister so suddenly, or that she had sacrificed her life’s happiness to any childish idea of decorum, I did not think probable. The spirit she had shown, her immovable attitude under a temptation which had not only romance to recommend it, but everything else which could affect a young and sensitive woman, argued in my mind the existence of some uncompleted duty of so exacting and imperative a nature that she could not even consider the greatest interests of her own life until this one thing was out of her way. William’s rude question of the morning, “What shall we do with the old girl till it is all over?” recurred to me in support of this theory, making me feel that I needed no further confirmation, to be quite certain that a crisis was approaching in this house which would tax my powers to the utmost and call perhaps for the use of the whistle which I had received from Mr. Gryce, and which, following his instructions, I had tied carefully about my neck. Yet how could I associate Lucetta with crime, or dream of the police in connection with the serene Loreen, whose every look was a rebuke to all that was false, vile, or even common? Easily, my readers, easily, with that great, hulking William in my remembrance. To shield him, to hide perhaps his deformity of soul from the world, even such gentle and gracious women as these have been known to enter into acts which to an unprejudiced eye and an unbiased conscience would seem little short of fiendish. Love for an unworthy relative, or rather the sense of duty toward those of one’s own blood, has driven many a clear-minded woman to her ruin, as may be seen any day in the police annals.
I am quite aware that I have not as yet put into definite words the suspicion upon which I was now prepared to work. Up to this time it had been too vague, or rather of too monstrous a character for me not to consider other theories, such as, for instance, the possible connection of old Mother Jane with the unaccountable disappearances which had taken place in this lane. But after this scene, the increased assurance I was hourly receiving that something extraordinary and out of keeping with the customary appearances of the household was secretly going on in some one of the various chambers of that long corridor I had been prevented from entering, forced me to accept and act upon the belief that these young women held in charge a prisoner of some kind, of whose presence in the house they dreaded the discovery.
Now, who could this prisoner be?
Common sense supplied me with but one answer; Silly Rufus, the boy who within a few days had vanished from among the good people of this seemingly guileless community.
This theory once established in my mind, I applied myself to a consideration of the means at my disposal for determining its validity. The simplest, surest, but least satisfactory to one of my nature was to summon the police and have the house thoroughly searched, but this involved, in case I had been deceived by appearances — as was possible even to a woman of my experience and discrimination — a scandal and an opprobrium which I would be the last to inflict upon Althea’s children, unless justice to the rest of the world demanded it.
It was in consideration of this very fact, perhaps, that I had been chosen for this duty instead of some regular police spy. Mr. Gryce, as I very well knew, has made it his rule of life never to risk the reputation of any man or woman without reasons so excellent as to carry their own exoneration with them, and should I, a woman, with full as much heart as himself, if not quite as much brain (at least in the estimation of people in general), by any premature exposure of my suspicions, subject these young friends of mine to humiliations they are far too weak and too poor to rise above?
No, rather would I trust a little longer to my own perspicacity and make sure by the use of my own eyes that the situation called for the interference I had, as you may say, at the end of the cord I wore about my neck.
Lucetta had not asked me how I came to be back so much sooner than she had reason to expect me. The unlooked-for arrival of her lover had probably put all idea of her former plans out of her head. I therefore gave her the shortest of explanations when we met at the dinner table. Nothing further seemed to be necessary, for the girls were even more abstracted than before, and William positively boorish till a warning glance from Loreen recalled him to his better self, which meant silence.
The afternoon was spent in very much the same way as the evening before. Neither sister remained an instant with me after the other entered my company, and though the alternations were less frequent than at that time, their peculiarities were more marked and less naturally accounted for. It was while Loreen was with me that I made the suggestion which had been hovering on my lips ever since the noon.
“I consider this,” I observed, in one of the pauses of our more than fitful conversation, “one of the most interesting houses it has ever been my good fortune to enter. Would you mind my roaming about a bit just to enjoy the old-time flavor of its great empty rooms? I know they are mostly closed and possibly unfurnished, but to a connoisseur like myself in colonial architecture, this rather adds to, than detracts from, their interest.”
“Impossible,” she was going to say, but caught herself back in time and changed the imperative word to one more conciliatory if equally unyielding.
“I am sorry, Miss Butterworth, to deny you this gratification, but the condition of the rooms and the unhappy excitement into which we have been thrown by the unfortunate visit paid to Lucetta by a gentleman to whom she is only too much attached, make it quite impossible for me to consider any such undertaking to-day. To-morrow I may find it easier; but, if not, be assured you shall see every nook and corner of this house before you finally leave it.”
“Thank you. I will remember that. To one of my tastes an ancient room in a time-honored mansion like this, affords a delight not to be understood by one who knows less of the last century’s life. The legends connected with your great drawing-room below [we were sitting in my room, I having refused to be cooped up in their dreary side parlor, and she not having offered me any other spot more cheerful] are sufficient in themselves to hold me entranced for an hour. I heard one of them to-day.”
She spoke more quickly than usual, and for her quite sharply.
“That of Lucetta’s namesake,” I explained. “She who rode through the night after a daughter who had won her lover’s heart away from her.
“Ah, it is a well-known tale, but I think Mrs. Carter might have left its relation to us. Did she tell you anything else?”
“No other tradition of this place,” I assured her.
“I am glad she was so considerate. But why — if you will pardon me — did she happen to light upon that story? We have not heard those incidents spoken of for years.”
“Not since the phantom coach flew through this road the last time,” I ventured, with a smile that should have disarmed her from suspecting any ulterior motive on my part in thus introducing a subject which could not be altogether pleasing to her.
“The phantom coach! Have you heard of that?”
I wish it had been Lucetta who had said this and to whom my reply was due. The opportunities would have been much greater for an injudicious display of feeling on her part and for a suitable conclusion on mine.
But it was Loreen, and she never forgot herself. So I had to content myself with the persuasion that her voice was just a whit less clear than usual and her serenity enough impaired for her to look out of my one high and dismal window instead of into my face.
“My dear,”— I had not called her this before, though the term had frequently risen to my lips in answer to Lucetta —“you should have gone with me into the village to-day. Then you would not need to ask if I had heard of the phantom coach.”
The probe had reached the quick at last. She looked quite startled.
“You amaze me,” she said. “What do you mean, Miss Butterworth? Why should I not have needed to ask?”
“Because you would have heard it whispered about in every lane and corner. It is common talk in town to-day. You must know why, Miss Knollys.”
She was not looking out of the window now. She was looking at me.
“I assure you,” she murmured, “I do not know at all. Nothing could be more incomprehensible to me. Explain yourself, I entreat you. The phantom coach is but a myth to me, interesting only as involving certain long-vanished ancestors of mine.”
“Of course,” I assented. “No one of real sense could regard it in any other light. But villagers will talk, and they say — you will soon know what, if I do not tell you myself — that it passed through the lane on Tuesday night.”
“Tuesday night!” Her composure had been regained, but not so entirely but that her voice slightly trembled. “That was before you came. I hope it was not an omen.”
I was in no mood for pleasantry.
“They say that the passing of this apparition denotes misfortune to those who see it. I am therefore obviously exempt. But you — did you see it? I am just curious to know if it is visible to those who live in the lane. It ought to have turned in here. Were you fortunate enough to have been awake at that moment and to have seen this spectral appearance?”
She shuddered. I was not mistaken in believing I saw this sign of emotion, for I was watching her very closely, and the movement was unmistakable.
“I have never seen anything ghostly in my life,” said she. “I am not at all superstitious.”
If I had been ill-natured or if I had thought it wise to press her too closely, I might have inquired why she looked so pale and trembled so visibly.
But my natural kindness, together with an instinct of caution, restrained me, and I only remarked:
“There you are sensible, Miss Knollys — doubly so as a denizen of this house, which, Mrs. Carter was obliging enough to suggest to me, is considered by many as haunted.”
The straightening of Miss Knollys’ lips augured no good to Mrs. Carter.
“Now I only wish it was,” I laughed dryly. “I should really like to meet a ghost, say, in your great drawing-room, which I am forbidden to enter.”
“You are not forbidden,” she hastily returned. “You may explore it now if you will excuse me from accompanying you; but you will meet no ghosts. The hour is not propitious.”
Taken aback by her sudden amenity, I hesitated for a moment. Would it be worth while for me to search a room she was willing to have me enter? No, and yet any knowledge which could be obtained in regard to this house might be of use to me or to Mr. Gryce. I decided to embrace her offer, after first testing her with one other question.
“Would you prefer to have me steal down these corridors at night and dare their dusky recesses at a time when spectres are supposed to walk the halls they once flitted through in happy consciousness?”
“Hardly.” She made the greatest effort to sustain the jest, but her concern and dread were manifest. “I think I had better give you the keys now, than subject you to the drafts and chilling discomforts of this old place at midnight.”
I rose with a semblance of eager anticipation.
“I will take you at your word,” said I. “The keys, my dear. I am going to visit a haunted room for the first time in my life.”
I do not think she was deceived by this feigned ebullition. Perhaps it was too much out of keeping with my ordinary manner, but she gave no sign of surprise and rose in her turn with an air suggestive of relief.
“Excuse me, if I precede you,” she begged. “I will meet you at the head of the corridor with the keys.”
I was in hopes she would be long enough in obtaining them to allow me to stroll along the front hall to the opening into the corridor I was so anxious to enter. But the spryness I showed, seemed to have a corresponding effect upon her, for she almost flew down the passageway before me and was back at my side before I could take a step in the coveted direction.
“These will take you into any room on the first floor,” said she. “You will meet with dust and Lucetta’s abhorrence, spiders, but for these I shall make no apologies. Girls who cannot provide comforts for the few rooms they utilize, cannot be expected to keep in order the large and disused apartments of a former generation.”
“I hate dirt and despise spiders,” was my dry retort, “but I am willing to brave both for the pleasure of satisfying my love for the antique.” At which she handed me the keys, with a calm smile which was not without its element of sadness.
“I will be here on your return,” she said, leaning over the banisters to speak to me as I took my first steps down. “I shall want to hear whether you are repaid for your trouble.”
I thanked her and proceeded on my way, somewhat doubtful whether by so doing I was making the best possible use of my opportunities.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09