“Some ninety miles from here, in a more or less inaccessible region, there is a small but interesting village, which has been the scene of so many unaccountable disappearances that the attention of the New York police has at last been directed to it. The village, which is at least two miles from any railroad, is one of those quiet, placid little spots found now and then among the mountains, where life is simple, and crime, to all appearance, an element so out of accord with every other characteristic of the place as to seem a complete anomaly. Yet crime, or some other hideous mystery almost equally revolting, has during the last five years been accountable for the disappearance in or about this village of four persons of various ages and occupations. Of these, three were strangers and one a well-known vagabond accustomed to tramp the hills and live on the bounty of farmers’ wives. All were of the male sex, and in no case has any clue ever come to light as to their fate. That is the matter as it stands before the police to-day.”
“A serious affair,” I remarked. “Seems to me I have read of such things in novels. Is there a tumbled-down old inn in the vicinity where beds are made up over trap-doors?”
His smile was a mild protest against my flippancy.
“I have visited the town myself. There is no inn there, but a comfortable hotel of the most matter-of-fact sort, kept by the frankest and most open-minded of landlords. Besides, these disappearances, as a rule, did not take place at night, but in broad daylight. Imagine this street at noon. It is a short one, and you know every house on it, and you think you know every lurking-place. You see a man enter it at one end and you expect him to issue from it at the other. But suppose he never does. More than that, suppose he is never heard of again, and that this thing should happen in this one street four times during five years.”
“I should move,” I dryly responded.
“Would you? Many good people have moved from the place I speak of, but that has not helped matters. The disappearances go on just the same and the mystery continues.”
“You interest me,” I said. “Come to think of it, if this street were the scene of such an unexplained series of horrors as you have described, I do not think I should move.”
“I thought not,” he curtly rejoined. “But since you are interested in this matter, let me be more explicit in my statements. The first person whose disappearance was noted ——”
“Wait,” I interrupted. “Have you a map of the place?”
He smiled, nodded quite affectionately to a little statuette on the mantel-piece, which had had the honor of sharing his confidences in days gone by, but did not produce the map.
“That detail will keep,” said he. “Let me go on with my story. As I was saying, madam, the first person whose disappearance was noted in this place was a peddler of small wares, accustomed to tramp the mountains. On this occasion he had been in town longer than usual, and was known to have sold fully half of his goods. Consequently he must have had quite a sum of money upon him. One day his pack was found lying under a cluster of bushes in a wood, but of him nothing was ever again heard. It made an excitement for a few days while the woods were being searched for his body, but, nothing having been discovered, he was forgotten, and everything went on as before, till suddenly public attention was again aroused by the pouring in of letters containing inquiries in regard to a young man who had been sent there from Duluth to collect facts in a law case, and who after a certain date had failed to communicate with his firm or show up at any of the places where he was known. Instantly the village was in arms. Many remembered the young man, and some two or three of the villagers could recall the fact of having seen him go up the street with his hand-bag in his hand as if on his way to the Mountain-station. The landlord of the hotel could fix the very day at which he left his house, but inquiries at the station failed to establish the fact that he took train from there, nor were the most minute inquiries into his fate ever attended by the least result. He was not known to have carried much money, but he carried a very handsome watch and wore a ring of more than ordinary value, neither of which has ever shown up at any pawnbroker’s known to the police. This was three years ago.
“The next occurrence of a like character did not take place till a year after. This time it was a poor old man from Hartford, who vanished almost as it were before the eyes of these astounded villagers. He had come to town to get subscriptions for a valuable book issued by a well-known publisher. He had been more or less successful, and was looking very cheerful and contented, when one morning, after making a sale at a certain farmhouse, he sat down to dine with the family, it being close on to noon. He had eaten several mouthfuls and was chatting quite freely, when suddenly they saw him pause, clap his hand to his pocket, and rise up very much disturbed. ‘I have left my pocket-book behind me at Deacon Spear’s,’ he cried. ‘I cannot eat with it out of my possession. Excuse me if I go for it.’ And without any further apologies, he ran out of the house and down the road in the direction of Deacon Spear’s. He never reached Deacon Spear’s, nor was he ever seen in that village again or in his home in Hartford. This was the most astonishing mystery of all. Within a half-mile’s radius, in a populous country town, this man disappeared as if the road had swallowed him and closed again. It was marvellous, it was incredible, and remained so even after the best efforts of the country police to solve the mystery had exhausted themselves. After this, the town began to acquire a bad name, and one or two families moved away. Yet no one was found who was willing to admit that these various persons had been the victims of foul play till a month later another case came to light of a young man who had left the village for the hillside station, and had never arrived at that or any other destination so far as could be learned. As he was a distant relative of a wealthy cattle owner in Iowa, who came on post-haste to inquire into his nephew’s fate, the excitement ran high, and through his efforts and that of one of the town’s leading citizens, the services of our office were called into play. But the result has been nil. We have found neither the bodies of these men nor any clue to their fate.”
“Yet you have been there?” I suggested.
“Wonderful! And you came upon no suspicious house, no suspicious person?”
The finger with which he was rubbing his eyeglasses went round and round the rims with a slower and slower and still more thoughtful motion.
“Every town has its suspicious-looking houses,” he slowly remarked, “and, as for persons, the most honest often wear a lowering look in which an unbridled imagination can see guilt. I never trust to appearances of that kind.”
“What else can you trust in, when a case is as impenetrable as this one?” I asked.
His finger, going slower and slower, suddenly stopped.
“In my knowledge of persons,” he replied. “In my knowledge of their fears, their hopes, and their individual concerns. If I were twenty years younger”— here he stole a glance at me in the mirror which made me bridle; did he think I was only twenty years younger than himself? —“I would,” he went on, “make myself so acquainted with every man, woman, and child there, that —” Here he drew himself up with a jerk. “But the day for that is passed,” said he. “I am too old and too crippled to succeed in such an undertaking. Having been there once, I am a marked man. My very walk betrays me. He whose good fortune it will be to get at the bottom of these people’s hearts must awaken no suspicions as to his connection with the police. Indeed, I do not think that any man can succeed in doing this now.”
I started. This was a frank showing of his hand at least. No man! It was then a woman’s aid he was after. I laughed as I thought of it. I had not thought him either so presumptuous or so appreciative of talents of a character so directly in line with his own.
“Don’t you agree with me, madam?”
I did agree with him; but I had a character of great dignity to maintain, so I simply surveyed him with an air of well-tempered severity.
“I do not know of any woman who would undertake such a task,” I calmly observed.
“No?” he smiled with that air of forbearance which is so exasperating to me. “Well, perhaps there isn’t any such woman to be found. It would take one of very uncommon characteristics, I own.”
“Pish!” I cried. “Not so very!”
“Indeed, I think you have not fully taken in the case,” he urged in quiet superiority. “The people there are of the higher order of country folk. Many of them are of extreme refinement. One family”— here his tone changed a trifle —“is poor enough and cultivated enough to interest even such a woman as yourself.”
“Indeed!” I ejaculated, with just a touch of my father’s hauteur to hide the stir of curiosity his words naturally evoked.
“It is in some such home,” he continued with an ease that should have warned me he had started on this pursuit with a quiet determination to win, “that the clue will be found to the mystery we are considering. Yes, you may well look startled, but that conclusion is the one thing I brought away with me from — X., let us say. I regard it as one of some moment. What do you think of it?”
“Well,” I admitted, “it makes me feel like recalling that pish I uttered a few minutes ago. It would take a woman of uncommon characteristics to assist you in this matter.”
“I am glad we have got that far,” said he.
“A lady,” I went on.
“Most assuredly a lady.”
I paused. Sometimes discreet silence is more sarcastic than speech.
“Well, what lady would lend herself to this scheme?” I demanded at last.
The tap, tap of his fingers on the rim of his glasses was my only answer.
“I do not know of any,” said I.
His eyebrows rose perhaps a hair’s-breadth, but I noted the implied sarcasm, and for an instant forgot my dignity.
“Now,” said I, “this will not do. You mean me, Amelia Butterworth; a woman who — but I do not think it is necessary to tell you either who or what I am. You have presumed, sir — Now do not put on that look of innocence, and above all do not attempt to deny what is so manifestly in your thoughts, for that would make me feel like showing you the door.”
“Then,” he smiled, “I shall be sure to deny nothing. I am not anxious to leave — yet. Besides, whom could I mean but you? A lady visiting friends in this remote and beautiful region — what opportunities might she not have to probe this important mystery if, like yourself, she had tact, discretion, excellent understanding, and an experience which if not broad or deep is certainly such as to give her a certain confidence in herself, and an undoubted influence with the man fortunate enough to receive her advice.”
“Bah!” I exclaimed. It was one of his favorite expressions. That was perhaps why I used it. “One would think I was a member of your police.”
“You flatter us too deeply,” was his deferential answer. “Such an honor as that would be beyond our deserts.”
To this I gave but the faintest sniff. That he should think that I, Amelia Butterworth, could be amenable to such barefaced flattery! Then I faced him with some asperity, and said bluntly: “You waste your time. I have no more intention of meddling in another affair than ——”
“You had in meddling in the first,” he politely, too politely, interpolated. “I understand, madam.”
I was angry, but made no show of being so. I was not willing he should see that I could be affected by anything he could say.
“The Van Burnams are my next-door neighbors,” I remarked sweetly. “I had the best of excuses for the interest I took in their affairs.”
“So you had,” he acquiesced. “I am glad to be reminded of the fact. I wonder I was able to forget it.”
Angry now to the point of not being able to hide it, I turned upon him with firm determination.
“Let us talk of something else,” I said.
But he was equal to the occasion. Drawing a folded paper from his pocket, he opened it out before my eyes, observing quite naturally: “That is a happy thought. Let us look over this sketch you were sharp enough to ask for a few moments ago. It shows the streets of the village and the places where each of the persons I have mentioned was last seen. Is not that what you wanted?”
I know that I should have drawn back with a frown, that I never should have allowed myself the satisfaction of casting so much as a glance toward the paper, but the human nature which links me to my kind was too much for me, and with an involuntary “Exactly!” I leaned over it with an eagerness I strove hard, even at that exciting moment, to keep within the bounds I thought proper to my position as a non-professional, interested in the matter from curiosity alone.
This is what I saw:
“Mr. Gryce,” said I, after a few minutes’ close contemplation of this diagram, “I do not suppose you want any opinion from me.”
“Madam,” he retorted, “it is all you have left me free to ask for.”
Receiving this as a permission to speak, I put my finger on the road marked with a cross.
“Then,” said I, “so far as I can gather from this drawing, all the disappearances seem to have taken place in or about this especial road.”
“You are as correct as usual,” he returned. “What you have said is so true, that the people of the vicinity have already given to this winding way a special cognomen of its own. For two years now it has been called Lost Man’s Lane.”
“Indeed!” I cried. “They have got the matter down as close as that, and yet have not solved its mystery? How long is this road?”
“A half mile or so.”
I must have looked my disgust, for his hands opened deprecatingly.
“The ground has undergone a thorough search,” said he. “Not a square foot in those woods you see on either side of the road, but has been carefully examined.”
“And the houses? I see there are three houses on this road.”
“Oh, they are owned by most respectable people —most respectable people,” he repeated, with a lingering emphasis that gave me an inward shudder. “I think I had the honor of intimating as much to you a few minutes ago.”
I looked at him earnestly, and irresistibly drew a little nearer to him over the diagram.
“Have none of these houses been visited by you?” I asked. “Do you mean to say you have not seen the inside of them all?”
“Oh,” he replied, “I have been in them all, of course; but a mystery such as we are investigating is not written upon the walls of parlors or halls.”
“You freeze my blood,” was my uncharacteristic rejoinder. Somehow the sight of the homes indicated on this diagram seemed to bring me into more intimate sympathy with the affair.
His shrug was significant.
“I told you that this was no vulgar mystery,” he declared; “or why should I be considering it with you? It is quite worthy of your interest. Do you see that house marked A?”
“I do,” I nodded.
“Well, that is a decayed mansion of imposing proportions, set in a forest of overgrown shrubbery. The ladies who inhabit it ——”
“Ladies!” I put in, with a small shock of horror.
“Young ladies,” he explained, “of a refined if not over-prosperous appearance. They are the interesting residue of a family of some repute. Their father was a judge, I believe.”
“And do they live there alone,” I asked — “two young ladies in a house so large and in a neighborhood so full of mystery?”
“Oh, they have a brother with them, a lout of no great attractions,” he responded carelessly — too carelessly, I thought.
I made a note of the house A in my mind.
“And who lives in the house marked B?” I now queried.
“A Mr. Trohm. You will remember that it was through his exertions the services of the New York police were secured. His place there is one of the most interesting in town, and he does not wish to be forced to leave it, but he will be obliged to do so if the road is not soon relieved of its bad name; and so will Deacon Spear. The very children shun the road now. I do not know of a lonelier place.”
“I see a little mark made here on the verge of the woods. What does that mean?”
“That stands for a hut — it can hardly be called a cottage — where a poor old woman lives called Mother Jane. She is a harmless imbecile, against whom no one has ever directed a suspicion. You may take your finger off that mark, Miss Butterworth.”
I did so, but I did not forget that it stood very near the footpath branching off to the station.
“You entered this hut as well as the big houses?” I intimated.
“And found,” was his answer, “four walls; nothing more.”
I let my finger travel along the footpath I have just mentioned.
“Steep,” was his comment. “Up, up, all the way, but no precipices. Nothing but pine woods on either side, thickly carpeted with needles.”
My finger came back and stopped at the house marked M.
“Why is a letter affixed to this spot?” I asked.
“Because it stands at the head of the lane. Any one sitting at the window L can see whoever enters or leaves the lane at this end. And some one is always sitting there. The house contains two crippled children, a boy and a girl. One of them is always in that window.”
“I see,” said I. Then abruptly: “What do you think of Deacon Spear?”
“Oh, he’s a well-meaning man, none too fine in his feelings. He does not mind the neighborhood; likes quiet, he says. I hope you will know him for yourself some day,” the detective slyly added.
At this return to the forbidden subject, I held myself very much aloof.
“Your diagram is interesting,” I remarked, “but it has not in the least changed my determination. It is you who will return to X., and that, very soon.”
“Very soon?” he repeated. “Whoever goes there on this errand must go at once; to-night, if possible; if not, to-morrow at the latest.”
“To-night! to-morrow!” I expostulated. “And you thought ——”
“No matter what I thought,” he sighed. “It seems I had no reason for my hopes.” And folding up the map, he slowly rose. “The young man we have left there is doing more harm than good. That is why I say that some one of real ability must replace him immediately. The detective from New York must seem to have left the place.”
I made him my most ladylike bow of dismissal.
“I shall watch the papers,” I said. “I have no doubt that I shall soon be gratified by seeing in them some token of your success.”
He cast a rueful look at his hands, took a painful step toward the door, and dolefully shook his head.
I kept my silence undisturbed.
He took another painful step, then turned.
“By the way,” he remarked, as I stood watching him with an uncompromising air, “I have forgotten to mention the name of the town in which these disappearances have occurred. It is called X., and it is to be found on one of the spurs of the Berkshire Hills.” And, being by this time at the door, he bowed himself out with all the insinuating suavity which distinguishes him at certain critical moments. The old fox was so sure of his triumph that he did not wait to witness it. He knew — how, it is easy enough for me to understand now — that X. was a place I had often threatened to visit. The family of one of my dearest friends lived there, the children of Althea Knollys. She had been my chum at school, and when she died I had promised myself not to let many months go by without making the acquaintance of her children. Alas! I had allowed years to elapse.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09