A woman fleeing from publicity as one flies from death — a refined woman, too, whose life had hitherto been passed in the open!
When Antoinette Duclos, after a night and morning of unprecedented fatigue and extraordinary fears, with little to upbear her in the way of food, stepped from the train which brought a few local passengers into the quiet village of Rexam, she hardly would have been recognized by her best friend, such marks may a few hours leave upon one battling with untoward Fate in one supreme effort.
She seemed to realize this, for meeting more than one eye fixed inquiringly upon her she drew down the veil wound about a sort of cap she wore till it concealed not only her features but her throat which a restless pulse had tightened almost to the exclusion of her breath. Ready to drop, she yet made use of the little energy left her, to approach with faltering steps a lumbering old vehicle waiting in the dust and smoke for such passengers as might wish to be taken up Long Hill.
There was no driver in sight, but she did not hesitate to take her seat inside. There was extra business at the station, for this was the first train to come in for two days; and if anyone noticed her in the shadowy recesses of the cumbrous old coach, nobody approached her; nor was she in any way disturbed. When the driver did show himself, she was almost asleep, but she woke up quickly enough when his good-natured face peered in at her and she heard him ask where she wanted to go and whether she had any baggage.
“I want to go up Long Hill and be set down at the first cross-road,” she said. “My baggage is here.” And she pointed to the space at her feet. But that space was empty; she had no baggage. She had dropped both bag and umbrella at the side of the road after one of her long climbs under a fitful moon and had not so much as thought of them since.
Now she remembered and flushed as she met the eyes of the man looking in at her with his hand on his whiskers, smoothing them thoughtfully down but saying nothing, though his countenance and expression showed him to be one of the loquacious sort. If any smiles remained to her from the old days, now was the time for one; but before she could twist her dry lips into any such attempt, he had uttered a cheerful “All right” and turned away to clamber up into his seat.
The relief was great, and she settled back, rejoicing in the fact that they would soon be moving and that she was likely to be the sole passenger. But she soon came to rue this fact, for the driver wanted to talk and even made many abortive attempts that way. But she could not fall in with his mood, and seeing this, he soon withheld all remarks and bent his full energies to the task of urging his horses up the interminable incline.
Houses, at which she scarcely looked, disappeared gradually from view, and groups of spreading trees and patches of upland took their places, deepening into the forest as they advanced. When halfway up, the farther mountains, which had hitherto been hidden by nearer hills, burst into view. Behind them the sun was setting, and the scene was glorious. If she saw it at all, she gave no sign of pleasure or even of admiration. Her head, which she had held straight up for the first quarter of a mile, sank lower and lower as they clambered on; yet she gave no signs of drowsiness — only of a mortal weariness which seemed to attack the very springs of life. The pomp and pageantry of the heavens, burning with all the pigments of the rainbow, failed to appeal to a soul shut within dungeon bars. Rocks and mighty gorges darkling to the eye and stirring to the imagination held no story for her; she looked neither to the right nor to the left while the beauty lasted, much less when the last gleam had faded from the mountain tops and a troop of leaden clouds, coming up from the east, added their shadows to those of premature night.
The driver, who had been eying these clouds for some little time, felt that he ought to speak if she did not. Pulling up his horses as though to give them a breathing spell, he remarked over his shoulder with a strain of anxiety in his voice:
“I hope your friends live near the top of the hill, missus. A storm is coming up, and it’s getting very dark. Will you have to walk far?”
“No, no,” she assured him with a quick glance up and around her. “A little way, a very little way!” Then she became quiet and absorbed again.
“I’ve got to go on,” he broke in again as the top of the hill came in sight. “I’ve a passenger for the eight-fifty train waiting for me more than a mile along the road. I shall have to leave you after I set you down.”
“That’s right; I expect that. I can take care of myself — don’t worry. Not but what you’re very kind,” she added after a moment, in her cultured voice, with just enough trace of accent to make it linger sweetly in the ear.
“Then here we are,” he called back a moment later, jerking his horses to a standstill and jumping down into the road. “Goin’ east or goin’ west?” he asked as he took another glance at her frail and poorly protected figure.
“This way,” she answered, pointing east.
He stopped and stared at her.
“Nobody lives that way,” he said, “— that is, nobody near enough for you to reach shelter before the storm bursts.”
“You are mistaken,” she said, cringing involuntarily as the first big clap of thunder rolled in endless echoes among the mountains. And turning about, she started hurriedly into the shadows of the narrow cross-road.
He gave one glance back at his horses, the twitching of whose ears showed nervousness, uttered some familiar word and launched out after the woman. “Pardon me, missus,” he cried, “but is it Miss Brown’s you mean?”
The widow stopped, glanced back at him over her shoulder, made a quick, protesting gesture and dashed on.
With a shake of his head and a muttered, “Well, women do beat the devil!” he retraced his steps; and she proceeded on alone.
As the last sound of his horses’ hoof-beats died out on the road, a second clap of thunder seemed to bring heaven and earth together. She scarcely looked up. She was approaching a little weather-beaten house nestled among trees on the edge of a deep gorge. As her eyes fell on it, her footsteps quickened, and lifting a hasty hand, she pulled off her veil. A change quite indescribable, but real for all that, had taken place in her worn and waxen features. Not joy, but a soft expectancy relieved them from their extreme tension. If a friend awaited her, that friend would have no difficulty in recognizing her now. But alas!
A few steps more, and she stood before the door. It had a desolate look; the whole house had a desolate look, possibly because every shade was drawn. But she did not notice this; she was too sure of her welcome. Raising her hand to the knocker, she gave two sharp raps. Then she waited. No answer from within — no sound of hurrying steps — only another rumble in the sky and a quick rustling of the trees on either side of her as if the wind which made the horizon black had sent an avant-courieur over the hilltops.
“Elvira is out — gone to some church meeting or social gathering down in the village. She will be back. But I won’t wait. I will try and get in in the old way. The storm may delay her indefinitely.”
Leaving the door, which was raised only two steps above the road, she walked to the corner of the house and stooping down, felt behind a projecting stone for what she had certainly expected to find there — a key to the front door.
But her hand came away empty.
Surprised, for this was not her first visit to this house (she had once spent weeks there and knew the habits of its mistress well), she felt again in the place where the key should be, and where she had so often found it when her friend was out. But all to no avail. It was not there, and presently she was in the road again staring at the closed-up front.
As she did so, these words left her lips:
“And she knew I might come at any minute!”
Tottering from fatigue, she caught at the trunk of a great tree which held roof and wall in its embrace.
Why did it quiver? Why did the ground beneath her feet seem to rock and all nature darken as with the falling of a pall. The storm was upon her. It had rolled up with incredible swiftness and was about to break over her head. With a shock she realized her position. No shelter, and the storm of the season upon her! What should she do? There was no way of getting into the house at the rear, for the bushes were too thick. She must accept her fate, be drenched to the skin, perhaps smitten by the next thunderbolt. But Antoinette Duclos was no coward, so far as physical ills were concerned. She drew herself up straight against the trunk of the tree, thinking that this, bad as it was, was better than shelter with the enemy at the door. She would be calm, and she was fast growing so when she suddenly became aware of a man standing very near and hunting her out through the dusk.
She never knew why the scream which rose in her throat did not pass her lips. Her terror was unspeakable, for she had heard no advance; indeed, there was too much noise about her for that. But it was the silent terror of despair, for she thought it was the man from whom she had made this great effort at escape. But he soon proved to her he was not. It was just the driver of the stagecoach, returned to see what had become of her. He had feared to find her stricken down in the road, and when he saw her clinging alone and in a maddened way to this tree, he made no bones of speaking to her with all necessary plainness.
“I asked you if it was Missus Brown you had come to see,” he called to her through the din. “And you wouldn’t answer.”
“Why should I?” she shouted back. “Why do you speak like that? Has anything happened to her?”
“Don’t you know?”
“No, no — she was well when I heard from her last, and expecting me, or so she wrote. Is she — she —”
“Dead, missus. We buried her last Tuesday. I’m sorry, but —”
Why finish? She was lying out before him, straight and stark in the road. A bolt of lightning which at that moment tore its way through the heavens brought into startling view her face, white with distraction, framed in a mass of iron-gray locks released by her fall.
“Good heaven!” burst from the lips of the frightened man as he stooped to lift her. “What am I going to do now?”
The thunder answered him, or rather it robbed him for the moment of all thought. Peal after peal rattled over the neighboring peaks, rocking the air on the uplands and filling his soul with dismay. But when quiet had come again, hope returned with it. She was not only standing upright but was crying in his ear:
“Can I get into the house? If I could stay there to-night, I could go back to-morrow.”
“I’ll see that you get in, if I have to break in a window,” he answered. “But you’re sure that you will not be afraid to stay out this terrible storm in a house with no neighbors within half a mile?”
“I know the house. I have been here before, and if Elvira Brown could face the storms of forty years from her solitary home, I can surely face a single one, without losing my courage.”
He said no more, but approaching the house, began to test such windows as he could reach. He finally broke in a pane and released the latch; after that, entrance was easy.
Yet after he had opened the way for her and she had stepped into the dim interior, he felt loth to leave her. Duty called him away. The passenger awaiting him up the road was a man he could not afford to disappoint; yet he stood there longer than the occasion warranted, with the knob of the door in hand, watching her struggle with the lamp, which she at last succeeded in lighting. As the walls of the hall and her anxiously bending figure burst into view, he uttered a quick “Good-by!”
She turned, smiled and tried to thank him, but the words failed to leave her lips. A nearer and fiercer bolt had shot to earth at that instant, striking a tree so near that the noise of its fall mingled with the crash of the heavens. When it had ceased, he had gone. He could not face the look with which she met this new catastrophe.
That look never again left her. When she saw herself in a glass, as she presently did, on entering one of the rooms lamp in hand, she was startled and muttered:
“My own mother would pass me by if she saw me now. I could go anywhere I wished without fear or dread. Why did I leave New York?” And setting the lamp down, she covered her face and wept.
The storm abated; a few minutes of fiercely pouring rain, and all was over. She was left in ghastly quiet — a quiet which was almost worse than the turmoil which had preceded it — to face her memories and accustom herself to the thought that the solitary woman with whose life everything she looked upon was so intimately connected was gone, never to pass through these doors again or touch with deft and careful fingers the infinite number of little belongings with which the house was filled.
For as yet nothing had been changed, nothing had been moved. How fitting this was, Antoinette knew better than anybody else, perhaps, for she was the only person whom Elvira Brown had ever allowed to spend any length of time with her, and she could remember — alas! how vividly, in spite of the one great fear forever gnawing at her heart — that an article, no matter how small, when once given place in this house, held that place always till broken or in some other way robbed of its usefulness. She looked at her friend’s pet chair standing just in the one spot where she had seen it eight years before, and her heart swelled, and a tear rose in her eye. But there was not time for another. A sense of the straits in which she found herself placed by the death of this dependable friend returned upon her in full force; the past retired into its old place, and the present, with its maddening problems, seized upon her nerve and quelled her once indomitable spirit.
The fate which had pursued her ever since she had left her happy home in France had not spared her at this crisis. The storm, of so little consequence to her, had roused the driver’s sympathy. This had not only fixed her image in his mind but given away her destination. All hope of hiding herself among the mountains was therefore gone. She would have to move on; but where? If she were but able to leave now, she might before morning find some covert from which help might be given her for further escape. But the condition of the roads, as well as her own weakness, forbade that. She needed food: she needed sleep. Of food she would find plenty, she was sure; but sleep! How could she sleep, with the promise of the morrow before her? Yet she must; everything depended upon her strength. How could she win that rest which alone would secure it.
Pausing in the midst of the hall whither her restless thought had driven her, she stared in a fruitless inquiry at the wall confronting her. Her mind, like her feet, was at a standstill. She could neither think nor act. In fact, she was at the point of a nervous collapse, when slowly from out the void there rose to her view and pierced its way into her mind the outline of the door upon which she had been steadily looking but without seeing it till now. Why did she start as it thus took on shape before her? There was nothing strange or mysterious about it. It led nowhere; it hid nothing, unless it was the yard upon which it directly opened.
But that yard! She remembered it well. It was unlike any other she had ever seen in this country or her own. It was small and semicircular; it was shut in by a high board fence except at the extreme end, where it was met by a swinging bridge topping a forty-foot chasm. That bridge led through a sparsely wooded forest to a road running in a quite different direction from the one by which the house was approached. As she strove to recall her memories of it, she became more and more assured that her one and only opportunity for a successful flight lay that way. Moved to joy at the thought, she bowed her head for one wild moment in heartfelt thankfulness and then quickly drew the bolts of the door which offered her this happy deliverance.
She did not mean to seek escape to-night, but an irresistible impulse, which quite robbed her of her judgment, drove her to take a look into the yard and make sure for herself that the bridge was still there and everything as she had last seen it.
But when with the help of the wind she pulled open the heavy door and stood, throbbing under the force of the gale, on the shallow step outside, she found herself confronted by a darkness so hollow and so absolute that she felt as though she had stumbled into a pit. But instead of retreating, if only to procure a lantern, she took the one step down to the narrow walk which led through grass and flowers to the edge of the plateau from which the bridge extended. Would she be satisfied now? No, she must see the bridge, or if she could not see it, must feel it with her foot or touch it with her hand. Once sure of its presence there, she would return, take off her clothing and seek refreshment.
But how was she to find her way in such absolute darkness? Alone with the dying tempest, now moaning in fitful gusts, now shrieking a last protest in her ear, she stood peering helplessly before her. Already her arms had gone out like those of a blind person loosed upon an unknown road. She was conscious of a great fear. All the solitude of her position had rushed upon her. She felt herself lost, forsaken; yet she had no idea of turning back. If she could but find some support — something upon which to lay her fingers. She thought of the fence, and her courage revived. If she could but reach and follow that!
There were obstacles in her way. She was sure of this, for she remembered some of them, and Elvira no more changed her garden than her house. But with care she succeeded in getting around these, and soon she knew by the lessened force of the wind that she was near, if not directly under, the high fence upon which she depended for guidance. A few bushes — another unexpected obstacle, followed by a bad stumble — separated her from the contact for which she had reached; then by a final effort her fingers found the boards and she went eagerly on, dragging herself through the wet without knowing it, and only stopping with a sense of shock, when her hand, sliding from the boards, fell groping about in midair with nothing to grasp at. She had come to the end of the fence and was within a foot of the bridge — if the bridge was still there.
But her fears on this score were few, and she felt about with hand and foot till the former struck the rail at her side, and the latter the narrow planking spanning the gorge.
She hesitated now. Who would not? But the impulse which had led her thus far continued to urge her on. She stepped upon the bridge and proceeded to cross it, clinging to the rail with a feverish clutch, and feeling every board with her foot before venturing to trust her full weight upon it. She found them seemingly firm, and when about halfway across she stopped to listen for the roar of the mountain stream which she knew to be rushing over its rocky bed some forty awesome feet below her.
She heard it, but the swish of the trees lining the gorge was in her straining ears and half drowned its sullen sound. With feelings impossible to describe, she tossed up her arms to the skies, where a single brilliant star was looking through the mass of quickly flying, quickly disintegrating clouds. Then she sought again the safety of the guiding rail, and clinging desperately to it, took one more step and stopped with a smothered shriek. The rail had snapped under her hand and had gone tumbling down into the abyss. She heard it as it struck, or thought she did, and for a moment stood breathless and fearing to move, the world and all it held vanishing in semi-unconsciousness from heart and mind. What was she but a trembling atom floating in an unknown void on the fathomless sea of eternity! Then, as her mind steadied, she began to feel once more the boards under her feet, and to hear the smiting together of the great limbs wrestling in the depths of the forest. She even caught such a homely sound as the violent slamming of the door she had left unlatched behind her; and summoning up all her courage, which was not small when she was released from her first surprise, she stepped firmly backward till she felt the rail strong again under her clutch. Then she turned resolutely and retraced her steps along the bridge and so across the plateau to the house whose light had acted as a beacon to her whenever the door blew wide enough to let the one inner beam be seen.
When she was inside again, she lingered for a long time in the darkening hall, her slight form and whitened head leaning against the wall in a desolation such as few hearts know. Then something within the woman flared up in a rekindled flame, and she passed quickly into the room where she had left her lamp burning; and blowing it out, she threw herself down on a couch and tried to sleep.
An hour later the moon shone in upon her pale features and wild, staring eyes upturned to meet it. Then it vanished, and she and the whole house were given up again to darkness.
She had forgotten to eat, though the cupboards, in this well-stored house, were quite full.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55