I rose at my usual hour. I dressed myself with my usual care. I was, to a superficial observer at least, in all respects my usual self when Hannah came to my door to ask what she could do for me. As there was nothing I wanted but to get out of this house, which had become unbearable to me, I replied with the utmost cheerfulness that my wants were all supplied and that I would soon be down, at which she answered that in that case she must bestir herself or the breakfast would not be ready, and hurried away.
There was no one in the dining-room when I entered, and judging from appearances that several minutes must elapse before breakfast would be ready, I took occasion to stroll through the grounds and glance up at the window of William’s room. The knot of crape was gone.
I would have gone farther, but just then I heard a great rushing and scampering, and, looking up, saw an enormous dog approaching at full gallop from the stables. Saracen was loose.
I did not scream or give way to other feminine expressions of fear, but I did return as quickly as possible to the house, where I now saw I must remain till William chose to take me into town.
This I was determined should take place as soon after breakfast as practicable. The knowledge which I now possessed warranted, nay, demanded, instant consultation with the police, and as this could best be effected by following out the orders I had received from Mr. Gryce, I did not consider any other plan than that of meeting the man on duty in Room No. 3 at the hotel.
Loreen, Lucetta, and William were awaiting me in the hall, and made no apology for the flurry into which I had been thrown by my rapid escape from Saracen. Indeed I doubt if they noticed it, for with all the attempt they made to seem gay and at ease, the anxieties and fatigue of the foregoing nights were telling upon them, and from Miss Knollys down, they looked physically exhausted. But they also looked mentally relieved. In the clear depths of Lucetta’s eye there was now no wavering, and the head which was always turning in anxious anticipation over her shoulder rested firm, though not as erect as her sister’s, who had less cause perhaps for regret and sorrow.
William was joyful to a degree, but it was a forced joviality which only became real when he heard a sudden, quick bark under the window and the sound of scraping paws against the mastic coating of the wall outside. Then he broke out into a loud laugh of unrestrained pleasure, crying out thoughtlessly:
“There’s Saracen. How quick he knows ——”
A warning look from Lucetta stopped him.
“I mean,” he stammered, “it’s a dull dog that cannot find his master. Miss Butterworth, you will have to overcome your fear of dogs if you stay with us long. Saracen is unbound this morning, and”— he used a great oath —“he’s going to remain so.”
By which I came to understand that it was not out of consideration for me he had been tied up in the court till now, but for reasons connected with their own safety and the preservation of the secret which they so evidently believed had been buried with the body, which I did not like to remember lay at that very minute too nearly under our feet for my own individual comfort.
However, this has nothing to do with the reply I made to William.
“I hope he does not run with the buggy,” I objected. “I want to take a ride very much this morning and could get small pleasure out of it if that dog must be our companion.”
“I cannot go out this morning,” William began, but changed his sentence, possibly at the touch of his sister’s foot under the table, into: “But if you say I must, why, I must. You women folks are so plagued unreasonable.”
Had he been ten years younger I would have boxed his ears; had he been that much older I would have taken cue and packed my trunk before he could have finished the cup of coffee he was drinking. But he was just too old to reprimand in the way just mentioned, and not old enough to appreciate any display of personal dignity or self-respect on the part of the person he had offended. Besides, he was a knave; so I just let his impertinence pass with the remark:
“I have purchases to make in the village”: and so that matter ended, manifestly to the two girls’ relief, who naturally did not like to see me insulted, even if they did not possess sufficient power over their brother to prevent it.
One other small episode and then I will take you with me to the village. As we were leaving the table, where I ate less than common, notwithstanding all my efforts to seem perfectly unconcerned, Lucetta, who had waited for her brother to go out, took me gently by the arm, and, eying me closely, said:
“Did you have any dreams last night, Miss Butterworth? You know I promised you some.”
The question disconcerted me, and for a moment I felt like taking the two girls into my confidence and bidding them fly from the shame and doom so soon to fall upon their brother; but the real principle underlying all such momentary impulses on my part deterred me, and in as light a tone as I could command and not be an absolute hypocrite, I replied that I was sorry to disappoint her, but I had had no dreams, which seemed to please her more than it should, for if I had had no dreams I certainly had suffered from the most frightful realities.
I will not describe our ride into town. Saracen did go with us, and indignation not only rendered me speechless, but gave to my thoughts a turn which made that half-hour of very little value to me. Mother Jane’s burly figure crouching in her doorway might otherwise have given me opportunity for remark, and so might the dubious looks of people we met on the highroad — looks to which I am so wholly unaccustomed that I had difficulty in recognizing myself as the butt of so much doubt and possibly dislike. I attributed this, however, all to the ill repute under which William so deservedly labored, and did not allow myself to more than notice it. Indeed, I could only be sorry for people who did not know in what consideration I was held at home, and who, either through ignorance or prejudice, allowed themselves privileges they would be the first to regret did they know the heart and mind of Amelia Butterworth.
Once in the village, I took the direction of affairs.
“Set me down at the hotel,” I commanded, “and then go about such business as you may have here in town. I am not going to allow myself to be tracked all over by that dog.”
“I have no business,” was the surly reply.
“Then make some,” was my sharp retort. “I want to see the locksmith — that locksmith who wouldn’t come to do an honest piece of work for me in your house; and I want to buy dimities and wools and sewing silks at the dry-goods store over there. Indeed I have a thousand things to do, and expect to spend half the morning before the counters. Why, man, I haven’t done any shopping for a week.”
He gaped at me perfectly aghast (as I meant he should), and, having but little experience of city ladies, took me at my word and prepared to beat an honorable retreat. As a result, I found myself ten minutes later standing on the top step of the hotel porch, watching William driving away with Saracen perched on the seat beside him. Then I realized that the village held no companions for him, and did not know whether I felt glad or sorry.
To the clerk who came to meet me, I said quietly, “Room No. 3, if you please,” at which he gave a nod of intelligence and led me as unostentatiously as possible into a small hall, at the end of which I saw a door with the aforesaid number on it.
“If you will take a seat inside,” said he, “I will send you whatever you may desire for your comfort.”
“I think you know what that is,” I rejoined, at which he nodded again and left me, closing the door carefully behind him as he went.
The few minutes which elapsed before my quiet was disturbed were spent by me in thinking. There were many little questions to settle in my own mind, for which a spell of uninterrupted contemplation was necessary. One of these was whether, in the event of finding the police amenable, I should reveal or hide from these children of my old friend, the fact that it was through my instrumentality that their nefarious secret had been discovered. I wished — nay, I hoped — that the affair might be so concluded, but the possibility of doing so seemed so problematical, especially since Mr. Gryce was not on hand to direct matters, that I spent very little time on the subject, deep and important as it was to all concerned.
What most occupied me was the necessity of telling my story in such a way as to exonerate the girls as much as possible. They were mistaken in their devotion and most unhappy in the exercise of it, but they were not innately wicked and should not be made to appear so. Perhaps the one thing for which I should yet have the best cause to congratulate myself, would be the opportunity I had gained of giving to their connection with this affair its true and proper coloring.
I was still dwelling on this thought when there came a knock at my door which advised me that the visitor I expected had arrived. To open and admit him was the work of a moment, but it took more than a moment for me to overcome my surprise at seeing in my visitor no lesser person than Mr. Gryce himself, who in our parting interview had assured me he was too old and too feeble for further detective work and must therefore delegate it to me.
“Ah!” I ejaculated slowly. “It is you, is it? Well, I am not surprised.” (I shouldn’t have been.) “When you say you are old, you mean old enough to pull the wool over other people’s eyes, and when you say you are lame, you mean that you only halt long enough to let others get far enough ahead for them not to see how fast you hobble up behind them. But do not think I am not happy to see you. I am, Mr. Gryce, for I have discovered the secret of Lost Man’s Lane, and find it somewhat too heavy a one for my own handling.”
To my surprise he showed this was more than he expected.
“You have?” he asked, with just that shade of incredulity which it is so tantalizing to encounter. “Then I suppose congratulations are in order. But are you sure, Miss Butterworth, that you really have obtained a clue to the many strange and fearful disappearances which have given to this lane its name?”
“Quite sure,” I returned, nettled. “Why do you doubt it? Because I have kept so quiet and not sounded one note of alarm from my whistle?”
“No,” said he. “Knowing your self-restraint so well, I cannot say that that is my reason.”
“What is it, then?” I urged.
“Well,” said he, “my real reason for doubting if you have been quite as successful as you think, is that we ourselves have come upon a clue about which there can be no question. Can you say the same of yours?”
You will expect my answer to have been a decided “Yes,” uttered with all the positiveness of which you know me capable. But for some reason, perhaps because of the strange influence this man’s personality exercises upon all — yes, all — who do not absolutely steel themselves against him, I faltered just long enough for him to cry:
“I thought not. The clue is outside the Knollys house, not in it, Miss Butterworth, for which, of course, you are not to be blamed or your services scorned. I have no doubt they have been invaluable in unearthing a secret, if not the secret.”
“Thank you,” was my quiet retort. I thought his presumption beyond all bounds, and would at that moment have felt justified in snapping my fingers at the clue he boasted of, had it not been for one thing. What that thing is I am not ready yet to state.
“You and I have come to issue over such matters before,” said he, “and therefore need not take too much account of the feelings it is likely to engender. I will merely state that my clue points to Mother Jane, and ask if you have found in the visit she paid at the house last night anything which would go to strengthen the suspicion against her.”
“Perhaps,” said I, in a state of disdain that was more or less unpardonable, considering that my own suspicions previous to my discovery of the real tragedy enacted under my eyes at the Knollys mansion had played more or less about this old crone.
“Only perhaps?” He smiled, with a playful forbearance for which I should have been truly grateful to him.
“She was there for no good purpose,” said I, “and yet if you had not characterized her as the person most responsible for the crimes we are here to investigate, I should have said from all that I then saw of her conduct that she acted as a supernumerary rather than principal, and that it is to me you should look for the correct clue to the criminal, notwithstanding your confidence in your own theories and my momentary hesitation to assert that there was no possible defect in mine.”
“Miss Butterworth,”— I thought he looked a trifle shaken — “what did Mother Jane do in that closely shuttered house last night?”
Mother Jane? Well! Did he think I was going to introduce my tragic story by telling what Mother Jane did? I must have looked irritated, and indeed I think I had cause.
“Mother Jane ate her supper,” I snapped out angrily. “Miss Knollys gave it to her. Then she helped a little with a piece of work they had on hand. It will not interest you to know what. It has nothing to do with your clue, I warrant.”
He did not get angry. He has an admirable temper, has Mr. Gryce, but he did stop a minute to consider.
“Miss Butterworth,” he said at last, “most detectives would have held their peace and let you go on with what you have to tell without a hint that it was either unwelcome or unnecessary, but I have consideration for persons’ feelings and for persons’ secrets so long as they do not come in collision with the law, and my opinion is, or was when I entered this room, that such discoveries as you have made at your old friend’s house” (Why need he emphasize friend — did he think I forgot for a moment that Althea was my friend?) “were connected rather with some family difficulty than with the dreadful affair we are considering. That is why I hastened to tell you that we had found a clue to the disappearances in Mother Jane’s cottage. I wished to save the Misses Knollys.”
If he had thought to mollify me by this assertion, he did not succeed. He saw it and made haste to say:
“Not that I doubt your consideration for them, only the justness of your conclusions.”
“You have doubted those before and with more reason,” I replied, “yet they were not altogether false.”
“That I am willing to acknowledge, so willing that if you still think after I have told my story that yours is apropos, then I will listen to it only too eagerly. My object is to find the real criminal in this matter. I say at the present moment it is Mother Jane.”
“God grant you are right,” I said, influenced in spite of myself by the calm assurance of his manner. “If she was at the house night before last between eleven and twelve, then perhaps she is all you think her. But I see no reason to believe it — not yet, Mr. Gryce. Supposing you give me one. It would be better than all this controversy. One small reason, Mr. Gryce, as good as”— I did not say what, but the fillip it gave to his intention stood me in good stead, for he launched immediately into the matter with no further play upon my curiosity, which was now, as you can believe, thoroughly aroused, though I could not believe that anything he had to bring up against Mother Jane could for a moment stand against the death and the burial I had witnessed in Miss Knollys’ house during the two previous nights.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09