When my mind is set free from doubt and fully settled upon any course, I am capable of much good nature and seeming simplicity. I was therefore able to maintain my own at the breakfast-table with some success, so that the meal passed off without any of the disagreeable experiences of the night before. Perhaps the fact that Loreen presided at the coffee-urn instead of Lucetta had something to do with this. Her calm, even looks seemed to put some restraint upon the boisterous outbursts to which William was only too liable, while her less excitable nature suffered less if by any chance he did break out and startle the decorous silence by one of his rude guffaws.
I am a slow eater, but I felt forced to hurry through the meal or be left eating alone at the end. This did not put me in the best of humor, for I hated to risk an indigestion just when my faculties needed to be unusually alert. I compromised by leaving the board hungry, but I did it with such a smile that I do not think Miss Knollys knew I had not risen from any table so ill satisfied in years.
“I will leave you to my brother for a few minutes,” said she, hastily tripping from the room. “I pray that you will not think of going to your room till we have had an opportunity of arranging it.”
I instantly made up my mind to disobey this injunction. But first, it was necessary to see what I could make of William.
He was not a very promising subject as he turned and led the way toward the front of the house.
“I thought you might like to see the grounds,” he growled, evidently not enjoying the rÃ´le assigned him. “They are so attractive,” he sneered. “Children hereabout call them the jungle.”
“Who’s to blame for that?” I asked, with only a partial humoring of his ill nature. “You have a sturdy pair of arms of your own, and a little trimming here and a little trimming there would have given quite a different appearance to this undergrowth. A gentleman usually takes pride in his place.”
“Yes, when it’s all his. This belongs to my sisters as much as to me. What’s the use of my bothering myself about it?”
The man was so selfish he did not realize the extent of the exhibition he made of it. Indeed he seemed to take pride in what he probably called his independence. I began to feel the most intense aversion for him, and only with the greatest difficulty could prolong this conversation unmoved.
“I should think it would be a pleasure to give that much assistance to your sisters. They do not seem to be sparing in their attempts to please you.”
He snapped his fingers, and I was afraid a dog or two would come leaping around the corner of the house. But it was only his way of expressing disdain.
“Oh, the girls are well enough,” he grumbled; “but they will stick to the place. Lucetta might have married a half-dozen times, and once I thought she was going to, but suddenly she turned straight about and sent her lover packing, and that made me mad beyond everything. Why should she hang on to me like a burr when there are other folks willing to take on the burden?”
It was the most palpable display of egotism I had ever seen and one of the most revolting. I was so disgusted by it that I spoke up without any too much caution.
“Perhaps she thinks she can be useful to you,” I said. “I have known sisters give up their own happiness on no better grounds.”
“Useful?” he sneered. “It’s a usefulness a man like me can dispense with. Do you know what I would like?”
We were standing in one of the tangled pathways, with our faces turned toward the house. As he spoke, he looked up and made a rude sort of gesture toward the blank expanse of empty and curtainless windows.
“I would like that great house all to myself, to make into one huge, bachelor’s hall. I should like to feel that I could tramp from one end of it to the other without awakening an echo I did not choose to hear there. I should not find it too big. I should not find it too lonesome. I and my dogs would know how to fill it, wouldn’t we, Saracen? Oh, I forgot, Saracen is locked up.”
The way he mumbled the last sentence showed displeasure, but I gave little heed to that. The gloating way in which he said he and his dogs would fill it had given me a sort of turn. I began to have more than an aversion for the man. He inspired me with something like terror.
“Your wishes,” said I, with as little expression as possible, “seem to leave your sisters entirely out of your calculations. How would your mother regard that if she could see you from the place where she is gone?”
He turned upon me with a look of anger that made his features positively ugly.
“What do you mean by speaking to me of my mother? Have I spoken of her to you? Is there any reason why you should lug my mother into this conversation? If so, say so, and be ——”
He did not swear at me; he did not dare to, but he came precious near to it, and that was enough to make me recoil.
“She was my friend,” said I. “I knew and loved her before you were born. That was why I spoke of her, and I think it very natural myself.”
He seemed to feel ashamed. He grumbled out some sort of apology and looked about quite helplessly, possibly for the dog he manifestly was in the habit of seeing forever at his heels. I took advantage of this momentary abstraction on his part to smooth my own disturbed features.
“She was a beautiful girl,” I remarked, on the principle that, the ice once broken, one should not hesitate about jumping in. “Was your father equally handsome for a man?”
“My father — yes, let’s talk of father. He was a judge of horses, he was. When he died, there were three mares in the stable not to be beat this side of Albany, but those devils of executors sold them, and I— well, you had a chance to test the speed of old Bess yesterday. You weren’t afraid of being thrown out, I take it. Great Scott, to think of a man of my tastes owning no other horse than that!”
“You have not answered my question,” I suggested, turning him about and moving toward the gate.
“Oh, about the way my father looked! What does that matter? He was handsome, though. Folks say that I get whatever good looks I have from him. He was big — bigger than I am, and while he lived — What did you make a fellow talk for?”
I don’t know why I did, but I was certainly astonished at the result. This great, huge lump of selfish clay had actually shown feeling and was ashamed of it, like the lout he was.
“Yesterday,” said I, anxious to change the subject, “I had difficulty in getting in through that gate we are pointing for. Couldn’t you set it straight, with just a little effort?”
He paused, looked at me to see if I were in earnest, then took a dogged step toward the gate I was still indicating with my resolute right hand, but before he could touch it he perceived something on that deserted and ominous highway which made him start in sudden surprise.
“Why, Trohm,” he cried, “is that you? Well, it’s an age since I have seen you turn that corner on a visit to us.”
“Sometime, certainly,” answered a hearty and pleasant voice, and before I could quite drop the look of severity with which I was endeavoring to shame this young man into some decent show of interest in this place, and assume the more becoming aspect of a lady caught unawares at an early morning hour plucking flowers from a stunted syringa, a gentleman stepped into sight on the other side of the fence with a look and a bow so genial and devoid of mystery that I experienced for the first time since entering the gloomy precincts of this town a decided sensation of pleasure.
“Miss Butterworth,” explained Mr. Knollys with a somewhat forced gesture in my direction. “A guest of my sisters,” he went on, and looked as if he hoped I would retire, though he made no motion to welcome Mr. Trohm in, but rather leaned a little conspicuously on the gate as if anxious to show that he had no idea that the other’s intention went any further than the passing of a few neighborly comments at the gate.
I like to please the young even when they are no more agreeable than my surly host, and if the gentleman who had just shown himself had been equally immature, I would certainly have left them to have their talk out undisturbed. But he was not. He was older; he was even of sufficient years for his judgment to have become thoroughly matured and his every faculty developed. I therefore could not see why my society should be considered an intrusion by him, so I waited. His next sentence was addressed to me.
“I am happy,” said he, “to have the pleasure of a personal introduction to Miss Butterworth. I did not expect it. The surprise is all the more agreeable. I only anticipated being allowed to leave this package and letter with the maid. They are addressed to you, madam, and were left at my house by mistake.”
I could not hide my astonishment.
“I live in the next house below,” said he. “The boy who brought these from the post office was a stupid lad, and I could not induce him to come any farther up the road. I hope you will excuse the present messenger and believe there has been no delay.”
I bowed with what must have seemed an abstracted politeness. The letter was from New York, and, as I strongly suspected, from Mr. Gryce. Somehow this fact created in me an unmistakable embarrassment. I put both letter and package into my pocket and endeavored to meet the gentleman’s eye with my accustomed ease in the presence of strangers. But, strange to say, I had no sooner done so than I saw that he was no more at his ease than myself. He smiled, glanced at William, made an offhand remark or so about the weather, but he could not deceive eyes sharpened by such experience as mine. Something disturbed him, something connected with me. It made my cheek a little hot to acknowledge this even to myself, but it was so very evident that I began to cast about for the means of ridding ourselves of William when that blundering youth suddenly spoke:
“I suppose he was afraid to come up the lane. Do you know, I think you’re brave to attempt it, Trohm. We haven’t a very good name here.” And with a sudden, perfectly unnatural burst, he broke out into one of his huge guffaws that so shook the old gate on which he was leaning that I thought it would tumble down with him before our eyes.
I saw Mr. Trohm start and cast him a look in which I seemed to detect both surprise and horror, before he turned to me and with an air of polite deprecation anxiously said:
“I am afraid Miss Butterworth will not understand your allusions, Mr. Knollys. I hear this is her first visit in town.”
As his manner showed even more feeling than the occasion seemed to warrant, I made haste to answer that I was well acquainted with the tradition of the lane; that its name alone showed what had happened here.
His bearing betrayed an instant relief.
“I am glad to find you so well informed,” said he. “I was afraid”— here he cast another very strange glance at William —“that your young friends might have shrunk, from some sense of delicacy, from telling you what might frighten most guests from a lonely road like this. I compliment you upon their thoughtfulness.”
William bowed as if the words of the other contained no other suggestion than that which was openly apparent. Was he so dull, or was he — I had not time to finish my conjectures even in my own mind, for at this moment a quick cry rose behind us, and Lucetta’s light figure appeared running toward us with every indication of excitement.
“Ah,” murmured Mr. Trohm, with an appearance of great respect, “your sister, Mr. Knollys. I had better be moving on. Good-morning, Miss Butterworth. I am sorry that circumstances make it impossible for me to offer you those civilities which you might reasonably expect from so near a neighbor. Miss Lucetta and I are at swords’ points over a matter upon which I still insist she is to blame. See how shocked she is to see me even standing at her gate.”
Shocked! I would have said terrified. Nothing but fear — her old fear aggravated to a point that made all attempt at concealment impossible — could account for her white, drawn features and trembling form. She looked as if her whole thought was, “Have I come in time?”
“What — what has procured us the honor of this visit?” she asked, moving up beside William as if she would add her slight frame to his bulky one to keep this intruder out.
“Nothing that need alarm you,” said the other with a suggestive note in his kind and mellow voice. “I was rather unexpectedly intrusted this morning with a letter for your agreeable guest here, and I have merely come to deliver it.”
Her look of astonishment passing from him to me, I thrust my hand into my pocket and drew out the letter which I had just received.
“From home,” said I, without properly considering that this was in some measure an untruth.
“Oh!” she murmured as if but half convinced. “William could have gone for it,” she added, still eying Mr. Trohm with a pitiful anxiety.
“I was only too happy,” said the other, with a low and reassuring bow. Then, as if he saw that her distress would only be relieved by his departure, he raised his hat and stepped back into the open highway. “I will not intrude again, Miss Knollys,” were his parting words. “If you want anything of Obadiah Trohm, you know where to find him. His doors will always be open to you.”
Lucetta, with a start, laid her hand on her brother’s arm as if to restrain the words she saw slowly laboring to his lips, and leaning breathlessly forward, watched the fine figure of this perfect country gentleman till it had withdrawn quite out of sight. Then she turned, and with a quick abandonment of all self-control, cried out with a pitiful gesture toward her brother, “I thought all was over; I feared he meant to come into the house,” and fell stark and seemingly lifeless at our feet.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09