I kept the promise I had made to myself and did not go to the stables. Had I intended to go there, I could not have done so after the discovery I have just mentioned. It awakened too many thoughts and contradictory surmises. If this knot was a signal, for whom was this signal meant? If it was a mere acknowledgment of death, how reconcile the sentimentality which prompted such an acknowledgment with the monstrous and diseased passions lying at the base of the whole dreadful occurrence? Lastly, if it was the result of pure carelessness, a bit of crape having been caught up and used for a purpose for which any ordinary string would have answered, what a wonderful coincidence between it and my thoughts — a coincidence, indeed, amounting almost to miracle!
Marvelling at the whole affair and deciding nothing, I allowed myself to stroll down alone to the gate, William having left me at my peremptory refusal to drag my skirts any longer through the briers. The day being bright and the sunshine warm, the road looked less gloomy than usual, especially in the direction of the village and Deacon Spear’s cottage. The fact is, that anything seemed better than the grim and lowering walls of the house behind me. If my home was there, so was my dread, and I welcomed the sight of Mother Jane’s heavy figure bent over her herbs at the door of her hut, a few paces to my left, where the road turned.
Had she not been deaf, I believed I would have called her. As it was, I contented myself with watching the awkward swayings of her body as she pottered to and fro among her turnips and carrots. My eyes were still on her when I suddenly heard the clatter of a horse’s hoofs on the highway. Looking up, I encountered the trim figure of Mr. Trohm, bending to me from a fine sorrel.
“Good morning, Miss Butterworth. It’s a great relief to me to see you in such good health and spirits this morning,” were the pleasant words with which he endeavored, perhaps, to explain his presence in a spot more or less under a ban.
It was certainly a surprise. What right had I to look for such attentions from a man whose acquaintance I had made only the day before? It touched me, little as I am in the habit of allowing myself to be ruled by trivial sentimentalities, and though I was discreet enough to avoid any further recognition of his kindness than was his due from a lady of great self-respect, he was evidently sufficiently gratified by my response to draw rein and pause for a moment’s conversation under the pine trees. This for the moment seemed so natural that I forgot that more than one pair of eyes might be watching me from the windows behind us — eyes which might wonder at a meeting which to the foolish understandings of the young might have the look of premeditation. But, pshaw! I am talking as if I were twenty instead of — Well, I will leave you to consult our family record on that point. There are certain secrets which even the wisest among us cannot be blamed for preserving.
“How did you pass the night?” was Mr. Trohm’s first question. “I hope in all due peace and quiet.”
“Thank you,” I returned, not seeing why I should increase his anxiety in my regard. “I have nothing to complain of. I had a dream; but dreams are to be expected where one has to pass a half-dozen empty rooms to one’s apartment.”
He could not restrain his curiosity.
“A dream!” he repeated. “I do not believe in sleep that is broken by dreams, unless they are of the most cheerful sort possible. And I judge from what you say that yours were not cheerful.”
I wanted to confide in him. I felt that in a way he had a right to know what had happened to me, or what I thought had happened to me, under this roof. And yet I did not speak. What I could tell would sound so puerile in the broad sunshine that enveloped us. I merely remarked that cheerfulness was not to be expected in a domicile so given over to the ravages of time, and then with that lightness and versatility which characterize me under certain exigencies, I introduced a topic we could discuss without any embarrassment to himself or me.
“Do you see Mother Jane over there?” I asked. “I had some talk with her yesterday. She seems like a harmless imbecile.”
“Very harmless,” he acquiesced; “her only fault is greed; that is insatiable. Yet it is not strong enough to take her a quarter of a mile from this place. Nothing could do that, I think. She believes that her daughter Lizzie is still alive and will come back to the hut some day. It’s very sad when you think that the girl’s dead, and has been dead nearly forty years.”
“Why does she harp on numbers?” I asked. “I heard her mutter certain ones over and over.”
“That is a mystery none of us have ever been able to solve,” said he. “Possibly she has no reason for it. The vagaries of the witless are often quite unaccountable.”
He remained looking at me long after he had finished speaking, not, I felt sure, from any connection he found between what he had just said and anything to be observed in me, but from — Well, I was glad that I had been carefully trained in my youth to pay the greatest attention to my morning toilets. Any woman can look well at night and many women in the flush of a bright afternoon, but the woman who looks well in the morning needs not always to be young to attract the appreciative gaze of a man of real penetration. Mr. Trohm was such a man, and I did not begrudge him the pleasure he showed in my neat gray silk and carefully adjusted collar. But he said nothing, and a short silence ensued, which was perhaps more of a compliment than otherwise. Then he uttered a short sigh and lifted the reins.
“If only I were not debarred from entering,” he smiled, with a short gesture toward the house.
I did not answer. Even I understand that on occasion the tongue plays but a sorry part in interviews of this nature.
He sighed again and uttered some short encouragement to his horse, which started that animal up and sent him slowly pacing down the road toward the cheerful clearing whither my own eyes were looking with what I was determined should not be construed even by the most sanguine into a glance of anything like wistfulness. As he went he made a bow I have never seen surpassed in my own parlor in Gramercy Park, and upon my bestowing upon him a return nod, glanced up at the house with an intentness which seemed to increase as some object, invisible to me at that moment, caught his eye. As that eye was directed toward the left wing, and lifted as far as the second row of windows, I could not help asking myself if he had seen the knot of crape which had produced upon me so lugubrious an impression. Before I could make sure of this he had passed from sight, and the highway fell again into shadow — why, I hardly knew, for the sun certainly had been shining a few minutes before.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09