The hall into which I had stepped was so dark that for a few minutes I could see nothing but the indistinct outline of a young woman with a very white face. She had uttered some sort of murmur at my words, but for some reason was strangely silent, and, if I could trust my eyes, seemed rather to be looking back over her shoulder than into the face of her advancing guest. This was odd, but before I could quite satisfy myself as to the cause of her abstraction, she suddenly bethought herself, and throwing open the door of an adjoining room, let in a stream of light by which we were enabled to see each other and exchange the greetings suitable to the occasion.
“Miss Butterworth, my mother’s old friend,” she murmured, with an almost pitiful effort to be cordial, “we are so glad to have you visit us. Won’t you — won’t you sit down?”
What did it mean? She had pointed to a chair in the sitting-room, but her face was turned away again as if drawn irresistibly toward some secret object of dread. Was there anyone or anything at the top of the dim staircase I could faintly see in the distance? It would not do for me to ask, nor was it wise for me to show that I thought this reception a strange one. Stepping into the room she pointed out, I waited for her to follow me, which she did with manifest reluctance. But when she was once out of the atmosphere of the hall, or out of reach of the sight or sound of whatever it was that frightened her, her face took on a smile that ingratiated her with me at once and gave to her very delicate aspect, which up to that moment had not suggested the remotest likeness to her mother, a piquant charm and subtle fascination that were not unworthy of the daughter of Althea Burroughs.
“You must not mind the poverty of your welcome,” she said, with a half-proud, half-apologetic look around her, which I must say the bareness and shabby character of the room we were in fully justified. “We have not been very well off since father died and mother left us. Had you given us a chance we should have written you that our home would not offer many inducements to you after your own, but you have come unexpectedly and ——”
“There, there,” I put in, for I saw that her embarrassment would soon get the better of her, “do not speak of it. I did not come to enjoy your home, but to see you. Are you the eldest, my dear, and where are your sister and brother?”
“I am not the eldest,” she said. “I am Lucetta. My sister”— here her head stole irresistibly back to its old position of listening —“will — will come soon. My brother is not in the house.”
“Well,” said I, astonished that she did not ask me to take off my things, “you are a pretty girl, but you do not look very strong. Are you quite well, my dear?”
She started, looked at me eagerly, almost anxiously, for a moment, then straightened herself and began to lose some of her abstraction.
“I am not a strong person,” she smiled, “but neither am I so very weak either. I was always small. So was my mother, you know.”
I was glad to have her talk of her mother. I therefore answered her in a way to prolong the conversation.
“Yes, your mother was small,” I admitted, “but never thin or pallid. She was like a fairy among us schoolgirls. Does it seem odd to hear so old a woman as I speak of herself as a schoolgirl?”
“Oh, no!” she said, but there was no heart in her voice.
“I had almost forgotten those days till I happened to hear the name of Althea mentioned the other day,” I proceeded, seeing I must keep up the conversation if we were not to sit in total silence. “Then my early friendship with your mother recurred to me, and I started up — as I always do when I come to any decision, my dear — and sent that telegram, which I hope I have not followed by an unwelcome presence.”
“Oh, no,” she repeated, but this time with some feeling; “we need friends, and if you will overlook our shortcomings — But you have not taken off your hat. What will Loreen say to me?”
And with a sudden nervous action as marked as her late listlessness, she jumped up and began busying herself over me, untying my bonnet and laying aside my bundles, which up to this moment I had held in my hands.
“I— I am so absent-minded,” she murmured. “I— I did not think — I hope you will excuse me. Loreen would have given you a much better welcome.”
“Then Loreen should have been here,” I said, with a smile. I could not restrain this slight rebuke, yet I liked the girl; notwithstanding everything I had heard and her own odd and unaccountable behavior, there was a sweetness in her face, when she chose to smile, that proved an irresistible attraction. And then, for all her absent-mindedness and abstracted ways, she was such a lady! Her plain dress, her restrained manner, could not hide this fact. It was apparent in every line of her thin but graceful form and in every inflection of her musical but constrained voice. Had I seen her in my own parlor instead of between these bare and moldering walls, I should have said the same thing: “She is such a lady!” But this only passed through my mind at the time. I was not studying her personality, but trying to understand why my presence in the house had so visibly disturbed her. Was it the embarrassment of poverty, not knowing how to meet the call made so suddenly upon it? I hardly thought so. Fear would not enter into a sensation of this kind, and fear was what I had seen in her face before the front door had closed upon me. But that fear? Was it connected with me or with something threatening her from another portion of the house?
The latter supposition seemed the probable one. The way her ear was turned, the slight start she gave at every sound, convinced me that her cause of dread lay elsewhere than with myself, and therefore was worthy of my closest attention. Though I chatted and tried in every way to arouse her confidence, I could not help asking myself between the sentences, if the cause of her apprehension lay with her sister, her brother, or in something entirely apart from either, and connected with the dreadful matter which had drawn me to X. Or another supposition still, was it merely the sign of an habitual distemper which, misunderstood by Mr. Gryce, had given rise to the suspicions which it was my possible mission here to dispel?
Anxious to force things a little, I remarked, with a glance at the dismal branches that almost forced their way into the open casements: “What a scene for young eyes like yours! Do you never get tired of these pine-boughs and clustering shadows? Would not a little cottage in the sunnier part of the town be preferable to all this dreary grandeur?”
She looked up with sudden wistfulness that made her smile piteous.
“Some of my happiest days have been passed here and some of my saddest. I do not think I should like to leave it for any sunny cottage. We were not made for bonny homes,” she continued. “The sombreness of this old house suits us.”
“And of this road,” I ventured. “It is the darkest and most picturesque I ever rode through. I thought I was threading a wilderness.”
For a moment she forgot her cause of anxiety and looked at me quite intently, while a subtle shade of doubt passed slowly over her features.
“It is a solitary one,” she acquiesced. “I do not wonder it struck you as dismal. Have you heard — has any one ever told you that — that it was not considered quite safe?”
“Safe?” I repeated, with — God forgive me! — an expression of mild wonder in my eyes.
“Yes, it has not the best of reputations. Strange things have happened in it. I thought that some one might have been kind enough to tell you this at the station.”
There was a gentle sort of sarcasm in the tone; only that, or so it seemed to me at the time. I began to feel myself in a maze.
“Somebody — I suppose it was the station-master — did say something to me about a boy lost somewhere in this portion of the woods. Do you mean that, my dear?”
She nodded, glancing again over her shoulder and partly rising as if moved by some instinct of flight.
“They are dark enough, for more than one person to have been lost in their recesses,” I observed with another look toward the heavily curtained windows.
“They certainly are,” she assented, reseating herself and eying me nervously while she spoke. “We are used to the terrors they inspire in strangers, but if you”— she leaped to her feet in manifest eagerness and her whole face changed in a way she little realized herself —“if you have any fear of sleeping amid such gloomy surroundings, we can procure you a room in the village where you will be more comfortable, and where we can visit you almost as well as we can here. Shall I do it? Shall I call ——”
My face must have assumed a very grim look, for her words tripped at that point, and a flush, the first I had seen on her cheek, suffused her face, giving her an appearance of great distress.
“Oh, I wish Loreen would come! I am not at all happy in my suggestions,” she said, with a deprecatory twitch of her lip that was one of her subtle charms. “Oh, there she is! Now I may go,” she cried; and without the least appearance of realizing that she had said anything out of place, she rushed from the room almost before her sister had entered it.
But not before their eyes had met in a look of unusual significance.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55