“Well, well, what did Trohm want here this morning?” cried a harsh voice from amid the tangled walks behind me. “Seems to me he finds this place pretty interesting all of a sudden.”
I turned upon the intruder with a look that should have daunted him. I had recognized William’s courteous tones and was in no mood to endure a questioning so unbecoming in one of his age to one of mine. But as I met his eye, which had something in it besides anger and suspicion — something that was quizzical if not impertinent — I changed my intention and bestowed upon him a conciliatory smile, which I hope escaped the eye of the good angel who records against man all his small hypocrisies and petty deceits.
“Mr. Trohm rides for his health,” said I. “Seeing me looking up the road at Mother Jane, he stopped to tell me some of the idiosyncrasies of that old woman. A very harmless courtesy, Mr. Knollys.”
“Very,” he echoed, not without a touch of sarcasm. “I only hope that is all,” he muttered, with a sidelong look back at the house. “Lucetta hasn’t a particle of belief in that man’s friendship, or, rather, she believes he never goes anywhere without a particular intention, and I do believe she’s right, or why should he come spying around here just at a time when”— he caught himself up with almost a look of terror —“when — when you are here?” he completed lamely.
“I do not think,” I retorted, more angrily than the occasion perhaps warranted, “that the word spying applies to Mr. Trohm. But if it does, what has he to gain from a pause at the gate and a word to such a new acquaintance as I am?”
“I don’t know,” William persisted suspiciously. “Trohm’s a sharp fellow. If there was anything to see, he would see it without half looking. But there isn’t. You don’t know of anything wrong here, do you, which such a man as that, hand in glove with the police as we know him to be, might consider himself interested in?”
Astonished both at this blundering committal of himself and at the certain sort of anxious confidence he showed in me, I hesitated for a moment, but only for a moment, since, if half my suspicions were true, this man must not know that my perspicacity was more to be feared than even Mr. Trohm’s was.
“If Mr. Trohm shows an increased interest in this household during the last two days,” said I, with a heroic defiance of ridicule which I hope Mr. Gryce has duly appreciated, “I beg leave to call your attention to the fact that on yesterday morning he came to deliver a letter addressed to me which had inadvertently been left at his house, and that this morning he called to inquire how I had spent the night, which, in consideration of the ghosts which are said to haunt this house and the strange and uncanny apparitions which only three nights ago made the entrance to this lane hideous to one pair of eyes at least, should not cause a gentleman’s son like yourself any astonishment. It does not seem odd to me, I assure you.”
He laughed. I meant he should, and, losing almost instantly his air of doubt and suspicion, turned toward the gate from which I had just moved away, muttering:
“Well, it’s a small matter to me anyway. It’s only the girls that are afraid of Mr. Trohm. I am not afraid of anything but losing Saracen, who has pined like the deuce at his long confinement in the court. Hear him now; just hear him.”
And I could hear the low and unhappy moaning of the hound distinctly. It was not a pleasant sound, and I was almost tempted to bid William unloose the dog, but thought better of it.
“By the way,” said he, “speaking of Mother Jane, I have a message to her from the girls. You will excuse me if I speak to the poor woman.”
Alarmed by his politeness more than I ever have been by his roughness and inconsiderate sarcasms, I surveyed him inquiringly as he left the gate, and did not know whether to stand my ground or retreat to the house. I decided to stand my ground; a message to this woman seeming to me a matter of some interest.
I was glad I did, for after some five minutes’ absence, during which he had followed her into the house, I saw him come back again in a state of sullen displeasure, which, however, partially disappeared when he saw me still standing by the gate.
“Ah, Miss Butterworth, you can do me a favor. The old creature is in one of her stubborn fits to-day, and won’t give me a hearing. She may not be so deaf to you; she isn’t apt to be to women. Will you cross the road and speak to her? I will go with you. You needn’t be afraid.”
The way he said this, the confidence he expected to inspire, had almost a ghastly effect upon me. Did he know or suspect that the only thing I feared in this lane was he? Evidently not, for he met my eye quite confidently.
It would not do to shake his faith at such a moment as this, so calling upon Providence to see me safely through this adventure, I stepped into the highway and went with him into Mother Jane’s cottage.
Had I been favored with any other companion than himself, I should have been glad of this opportunity. As it was, I found myself ignoring any possible danger I might be running, in my interest in the remarkable interior to which I was thus introduced.
Having been told that Mother Jane was poor, I had expected to confront squalor and possibly filth, but I never have entered a cleaner place or one in which order made the poorest belongings look more decent. The four walls were unfinished, and so were the rafters which formed the ceiling, but the floor, neatly laid in brick, was spotless, and the fireplace, also of brick, was as deftly swept as one could expect from the little scrub I saw hanging by its side. Crouched within this fireplace sat the old woman we had come to interview. Her back was to us, and she looked helplessly and hopelessly deaf.
“Ask her,” said William, pointing towards her with a rude gesture, “if she will come to the house at sunset. My sisters have some work for her to do. They will pay her well.”
Advancing at his bidding, I passed a rocking-chair, in the cushion of which a dozen patches met my eye. This drew my eyes toward a bed, over which a counterpane was drawn, made up of a thousand or more pieces of colored calico, and noticing their varied shapes and the intricacy with which they were put together, I wondered whether she ever counted them. The next moment I was at her back.
“Seventy,” burst from her lips as I leaned over her shoulder and showed her the coin which I had taken pains to have in my hand.
“Yours,” I announced, pointing in the direction of the house, “if you will do some work for Miss Knollys to-night.”
Slowly she shook her head before burying it deeper in the shawl she wore wrapped about her shoulders. Listening a minute, I thought I heard her mutter: “Twenty-eight, ten, but no more. I can count no more. Go away!”
But I’m nothing if not persistent. Feeling for her hands, which were hidden away somewhere under her shawl, I touched them with the coin and cried again:
“This and more for a small piece of work to-night. Come, you are strong; earn it.”
“What kind of work is it?” I asked innocently, or it must have appeared innocently, of Mr. Knollys, who was standing at my back.
He frowned, all the black devils in his heart coming into his look at once.
“How do I know! Ask Loreen; she’s the one who sent me. I don’t take account of what goes on in the kitchen.”
I begged his pardon, somewhat sarcastically I own, and made another attempt to attract the attention of the old crone, who had remained perfectly callous to my allurements.
“I thought you liked money,” I said. “For Lizzie, you know, for Lizzie.”
But she only muttered in lower and lower gutturals, “I can count no more”; and, disgusted at my failure, being one who accounts failure as little short of disgrace, I drew back and made my way toward the door, saying: “She’s in a different mood from what she was yesterday when she snatched a quarter from me at the first intimation it was hers. I don’t think you can get her to do any work to-night. Innocents take these freaks. Isn’t there some one else you can call in?”
The scowl that disfigured his none too handsome features was a fitting prelude to his words.
“You talk,” said he, “as if we had the whole village at our command. How did you succeed with the locksmith yesterday? Came, didn’t he? Well, that’s what we have to expect whenever we want any help.”
Whirling on his heel, he led the way out of the hut, whither I would have immediately followed him if I had not stopped to take another look at the room, which struck me, even upon a second scrutiny, as one of the best ordered and best kept I had ever entered. Even the strings and strings of dried fruits and vegetables, which hung in festoons from every beam of the roof, were free from dust and cobwebs, and though the dishes were few and the pans scarce, they were bright and speckless, giving to the shelf along which they were ranged a semblance of ornament.
“Wise enough to keep her house in order,” thought I, and actually found it hard to leave, so attractive to my eyes are absolute neatness and order.
William was pushing at his own gate when I joined him. He looked as if he wished I had spent the morning with Mother Jane, and was barely civil in our walk up to the house. I was not, therefore, surprised when he burst into a volley of oaths at the doorway and turned upon me almost as if he would forbid me the house, for tap, tap, tap, from some distant quarter came a distinct sound like that of nails being driven into a plank.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55