The evening, like the afternoon, was spent in the sitting-room with one of the sisters. One event alone is worth recording. I had become excessively tired of a conversation that always languished, no matter on what topic it started, and, observing an old piano in one corner — I once played very well — I sat down before it and impulsively struck a few chords from the yellow keys. Instantly Lucetta — it was Lucetta who was with me then — bounded to my side with a look of horror.
“Don’t do that!” she cried, laying her hand on mine to stop me. Then, seeing my look of dignified astonishment, she added with an appealing smile, “I beg pardon, but every sound goes through me to-night.”
“Are you not well?” I asked.
“I am never very well,” she returned, and we went back to the sofa and renewed our forced and pitiful attempts at conversation.
Promptly at nine o’clock Miss Knollys came in. She was very pale and cast, as usual, a sad and uneasy look at her sister before she spoke to me. Immediately Lucetta rose, and, becoming very pale herself, was hurrying toward the door when her sister stopped her.
“You have forgotten,” she said, “to say good-night to our guest.”
Instantly Lucetta turned, and, with a sudden, uncontrollable impulse, seized my hand and pressed it convulsively.
“Good-night,” she cried. “I hope you will sleep well,” and was gone before I could say a word in response.
“Why does Lucetta go out of the room when you come in?” I asked, determined to know the reason for this peculiar conduct. “Have you any other guests in the house?”
The reply came with unexpected vehemence. “No,” she cried, “why should you think so? There is no one here but the family.” And she turned away with a dignity she must have inherited from her father, for Althea Burroughs had every interesting quality but that. “You must be very tired,” she remarked. “If you please we will go now to your room.”
I rose at once, glad of the prospect of seeing the upper portion of the house. She took my wraps on her arm, and we passed immediately into the hall. As we did so, I heard voices, one of them shrill and full of distress; but the sound was so quickly smothered by a closing door that I failed to discover whether this tone of suffering proceeded from a man or a woman.
Miss Knollys, who was preceding me, glanced back in some alarm, but as I gave no token of having noticed anything out of the ordinary, she speedily resumed her way up-stairs. As the sounds I had heard proceeded from above, I followed her with alacrity, but felt my enthusiasm diminish somewhat when I found myself passing door after door down a long hall to a room as remote as possible from what seemed to be the living portion of the house.
“Is it necessary to put me off quite so far?” I asked, as my young hostess paused and waited for me to join her on the threshold of the most forbidding room it had ever been my fortune to enter.
The blush which mounted to her brow showed that she felt the situation keenly.
“I am sure,” she said, “that it is a matter of great regret to me to be obliged to offer you so mean a lodging, but all our other rooms are out of order, and I cannot accommodate you with anything better to-night.”
“But isn’t there some spot nearer you?” I urged. “A couch in the same room with you would be more acceptable to me than this distant room.”
“I— I hope you are not timid,” she began, but I hastened to disabuse her mind on this score.
“I am not afraid of any earthly thing but dogs,” I protested warmly. “But I do not like solitude. I came here for companionship, my dear. I really would like to sleep with one of you.”
This, to see how she would meet such urgency. She met it, as I might have known she would, by a rebuff.
“I am very sorry,” she again repeated, “but it is quite impossible. If I could give you the comforts you are accustomed to, I should be glad, but we are unfortunate, we girls, and —” She said no more, but began to busy herself about the room, which held but one object that had the least look of comfort in it. That was my trunk, which had been neatly placed in one corner.
“I suppose you are not used to candles,” she remarked, lighting what struck me as a very short end, from the one she held in her hand.
“My dear,” said I, “I can accommodate myself to much that I am not used to. I have very few old maid’s ways or notions. You shall see that I am far from being a difficult guest.”
She heaved a sigh, and then, seeing my eye travelling slowly over the gray discolored walls which were not relieved by so much as a solitary print, she pointed to a bell-rope near the head of the bed, and considerately remarked:
“If you wish anything in the night, or are disturbed in any way, pull that. It communicates with my room, and I will be only too glad to come to you.”
I glanced up at the rope, ran my eye along the wire communicating with it, and saw that it was broken sheer off before it even entered into the wall.
“I am afraid you will not hear me,” I answered, pointing to the break.
She flushed a deep scarlet, and for a moment looked as embarrassed as ever her sister had done.
“I did not know,” she murmured. “The house is so old, everything is more or less out of repair.” And she made haste to quit the room.
I stepped after her in grim determination.
“But there is no key to the door,” I objected.
She came back with a look that was as nearly desperate as her placid features were capable of.
“I know,” she said, “I know. We have nothing. But if you are not afraid — and of what could you be afraid in this house, under our protection, and with a good dog outside? — you will bear with things to-night, and — Good God!” she murmured, but not so low but that my excited sense caught every syllable, “can she have heard? Has the reputation of this place gone abroad? Miss Butterworth,” she repeated earnestly, “the house contains no cause of terror for you. Nothing threatens our guest, nor need you have the least concern for yourself or us, whether the night passes in quiet or whether it is broken by unaccountable sounds. They will have no reference to anything in which you are interested.”
“Ah, ha,” thought I, “won’t they! You give me credit for much indifference, my dear.” But I said nothing beyond a few soothing phrases, which I made purposely short, seeing that every moment I detained her was just so much unnecessary torture to her. Then I went back to my room and carefully closed the door. My first night in this dismal and strangely ordered house had opened anything but propitiously.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50