Why Mr. Blake should take a journey at all at this time, and why of all places in the world he should choose such an insignificant town as Putney for his destination, was of course the mystery upon which I brooded during the entire distance. But when somewhere near five in the afternoon I stepped from the cars on to the platform at Putney Station only to hear Mr. Blake making inquiries in regard to a certain stage running between that town and a still smaller village further east, I own I was not only surprised but well-nigh nonplussed. Especially as he seemed greatly disappointed to hear that it only ran once a day, and then for an earlier train in the morning.
“You will have to wait till tomorrow I fear,” said the ticket agent, “unless the landlord of the hotel down yonder, can harness you up a team. There is a funeral out west today and —”
I did not wait to hear more but hurried down to the hotel he had pointed out, and hunting up the landlord inquired if for love or money he could get me any sort of a conveyance for Melville that afternoon. He assured me it would be impossible, the livery stable as well as his own being entirely empty.
“Such a thing don’t happen here once in five years,” said he to me. “But the old codger who is dead, though a queer dick was a noted personage in these parts, and not a man, woman or child, who could find a horse, mule or donkey, but what availed himself of the privilege. Even the doctor’s spavined mare was pressed into service, though she halts on one leg and stops to get her breath half a dozen times in going up one short hill. You will have to wait for the stage, sir.”
“But I am in a hurry,” said I as I saw Mr. Blake enter. “I have business in Melville tonight, and I would pay anything in reason to get there.”
But the landlord only shook his head; and drawing back with the air of an abused man, I took up my stand in the doorway where I could hear the same colloquy entered into with Mr. Blake, with the same unsatisfactory termination. He did not take it quite as calmly as I did, though he was of too reserved a nature to display much emotion over anything. The prospect of a long tedious evening spent in a country hotel seemed almost unendurable to him, but he finally succumbed to the force of circumstances, as indeed he seemed obliged to do, and partaking of such refreshment as the rather poorly managed hotel afforded, retired without ceremony to his room, from which he did not emerge again till next morning. In all this he had somehow managed not to give his name; and by means of some inquiries I succeeded in making that evening, I found his person was unknown in the town.
By a little management I secured the next room to his, by which arrangement I succeeded in passing a sleepless night, Mr. Blake spending most of the wee sma’ hours in pacing the floor of his room, with an unremitting regularity that had anything but a soothing effect upon my nerves. Early the next morning we took the stage, he sitting on the back seat, and I in front with the driver. There were other passengers, but I noticed he never spoke to any of them, nor through all the long drive did he once look up from the corner where he had ensconced himself. It was twelve o’clock when we reached the end of the route, a small town of somewhat less than the usual pretensions of mountain villages; so insignificant indeed, that I found it more and more difficult to imagine what the wealthy exCongressman could find in such a spot as this, to make amends for a journey of such length and discomfort; when to my increasing wonder I heard him give orders for a horse to be saddled and brought round to the inn door directly after dinner. This was a move I had not expected and it threw me a little aback, for although I had thus far managed to hold myself so aloof from Mr. Blake, even while keeping him under my eye, that no suspicion of my interest in his movements had as yet been awakened, how could I thus for the third time follow his order with one precisely similar, without attracting an attention that would be fatal to my plans. Yet to let him ride off alone now, would be to drop the trail at the very moment the scent became of importance.
The landlord, a bustling, wiry little man all nervousness and questions, unwittingly helped me at this crisis.
“Are you going on to Perry, sir?” inquired he of that gentleman, “I have been expecting a man along these three days bound for Perry.”
“I am that man,” I broke in, stepping forward with some appearance of asperity, “and I hope you won’t keep me waiting. A horse as soon as dinner is over, do you hear? I am two days late now, and won’t stand any nonsense.”
And to escape the questions sure to follow, I strode into the dining-room with a half-fierce, half-sullen countenance, that effectually precluded all advances. During the meal I saw Mr. Blake’s eye roam more than once towards my face; but I did not return his gaze, or notice him in any way; hurrying through my dinner, and mounting the first horse brought around, as if time were my only consideration. But once on the road I took the first opportunity to draw rein and wait, suddenly remembering that I had not heard Mr. Blake give any intimation of the direction he intended taking. A few minutes revealed to me his elegant form well mounted and showing to perfection in his closely buttoned coat, slowly approaching up the road. Taking advantage of a rise in the ground, I lingered till he was almost upon me, when I cantered quickly on, fearing to arouse his apprehensions if I allowed him to pass me on a road so solitary as that which now stretched out before us: a move provocative of much embarassment to me, as I dared not turn my head for the same reason, anxious as I was to keep him in sight.
The roads dividing before me, at length gave me my first opportunity to pause and look back. He was some fifty paces behind. Waiting till he came up, I bowed with the surly courtesy I thought in keeping with the character I had assumed, and asked if he knew which road led towards Perry, saying I had come off in such haste I had forgotten to inquire my way. He returned my bow, pointed towards the left hand road and saying, “I know this does not,” calmly took it.
Now here was a dilemma. If in face of this curt response I proceeded to follow him, my hand was revealed at once; yet the circumstances would admit of no other course. I determined to compromise matters by pretending to take the right hand road till he was out of sight, when I would return and follow him swiftly upon the left. Accordingly I reined my horse to the right, and for some fifteen minutes galloped slowly away towards the north; but another fifteen saw me facing the west, and riding with a force and fury of which I had not thought the old mare they had given me capable, till I put her to the test. It was not long before I saw my fine gentleman trotting in front of me up a long but gentle slope that rose in the distance; and slackening my own rein, I withdrew into the forest at the side of the road, till he had passed its summit and disappeared, when I again galloped forward.
And thus we went on for an hour, over the most uneven country I ever traversed, he always one hill ahead; when suddenly, by what instinct I cannot determine, I felt myself approaching the end, and hastening to the top of the ascent up which I was then laboring, looked down into the shallow valley spread out before me.
What a sight met my eyes if I had been intent on anything less practical than the movements of the solitary horseman below! Hills on hills piled about a verdant basin in whose depths nestled a scanty collection of houses, in number so small they could be told upon the fingers of the right hand, but which notwithstanding lent an indescribable aspect of comfort to this remote region of hill and forest.
But the vision of Mr. Blake pausing half way down the slope before me, examining, yes examining a pistol which he held in his hand, soon put an end to all ideas of romance. Somewhat alarmed I reined back; but his action had evidently no connection with me, for he did not once glance behind him, but kept his eye on the road which I now observed took a short turn towards a house of so weird and ominous an appearance that I scarcely marvelled at his precaution.
Situated on a level track of land at the crossing of three roads, its spacious front, rude and unpainted as it was, presented every appearance of an inn, but from its moss-grown chimneys no smoke arose, nor could I detect any sign of life in its shutterless windows and closed doors, across which shivered the dark shadow of the one gaunt and aged pine, that stood like a guard beside its tumbled-down porch.
Mr. Blake seemed to have been struck by the same fact concerning its loneliness, for hurriedly replacing his pistol in his breast pocket, he rode slowly forward. I instantly conceived the plan of striking across the belt of underbrush that separated me from this old dwelling, and by taking my stand opposite its front, intercept a view of Mr. Blake as he approached. Hastily dismounting, therefore, I led my horse into the bushes and tied her to a tree, proceeding to carry out my plan on foot. I was so far successful as to arrive at the further edge of the wood, which was thick enough to conceal my presence without being too dense to obstruct my vision, just as Mr. Blake passed on his way to this solitary dwelling. He was looking very anxious, but determined. Turning my eyes from him, I took another glance at the house, which by this movement I had brought directly before me. It was even more deserted-looking than I had thought; its unpainted front with its double row of blank windows meeting your gaze without a response, while the huge old pine with half its limbs dismantled of foliage, rattled its old bones against its sides and moaned in its aged fashion like the solitary retainer of a dead race.
I own I felt the cold shivers creep down my back as that creaking sound struck my ears, though as the day was chill with an east wind I dare say it was more the effect of my sudden cessation from exercise, than of any superstitious awe I felt. Mr. Blake seemed to labor under no such impressions. Riding up to the front door he knocked without dismounting, on its dismal panels with his riding whip. No response was heard. Knitting his brows impatiently, he tried the latch: the door was locked. Hastily running his eye over the face of the building, he drew rein and proceeded to ride around the house, which he could easily do owing to the absence of every obstruction in the way of fence or shrubbery. Finding no means of entrance he returned again to the front door which he shook with an impatient hand that however produced no impression upon the trusty lock, and recognizing, doubtless, the futility of his endeavors, he drew back, and merely pausing to give one other look at its deserted front, turned his horse’s head, and to my great amazement, proceeded with sombre mien and clouded brow to retake the road to Melville.
This old inn or decayed homestead was then the object of his lengthened and tedious journey; this ancient house rotting away among the bleak hills of Vermont, the bourne towards which his steps had been tending for these past two days. I could not understand it. Rapidly emerging from the spot where I had secreted myself, I in my turn made a circuit of the house, if happily I should discover some loophole of entrance which had escaped his attention. But every door and window was securely barred, and I was about to follow his example and leave the spot, when I saw two or three children advancing towards me down the cross roads, gaily swinging their school books. I noticed they hesitated and huddled together as they approached and saw me, but not heeding this, I accosted them with a pleasant word or so, then pointing over my shoulder to the house behind, asked who lived there. Instantly their already pale faces grew paler.
“Why,” cried one, a boy, “don’t you know? That is where the two wicked men lived who stole the money out of the Rutland bank. They were put in prison, but they got away and —”
Here, the other, a little girl, plucked him by the sleeve with such affright, that he himself took alarm and just giving me one quick stare out of his wide eyes, grasped his companion by the hand and took to his heels. As for myself I stood rooted to the ground in my astonishment. This blank, sleepy old house the home of the notorious Schoenmakers after whom half of the detectives of the country were searching? I could scarcely credit my own ears. True I now remembered they had come from these parts, still —
Turning round I eyed the house once more. How altered it looked to me! What a murderous aspect it wore, and how dismally secret were the tight shut windows and closely fastened doors, on one of which a rude cross scrawled in red chalk met the eye with a mysterious significance. Even the old pine had acquired the villainous air of the uncanny repositor of secrets too dreadful to reveal, as it groaned and murmured to itself in the keen east wind. Dark deeds and foul wrong seemed written all over the fearful place, from the long strings of black moss that clung to the worm-eaten eaves, to the worn stone with its great blotch of something — could it have been blood? — that served as a threshold to the door. Suddenly with the quickness of lightning the thought flashed across me, what could Mr. Blake, the aristocratic representative of New York’s oldest family, have wanted in this nest of infamy? What errand of hope, fear, despair, avarice or revenge, could have brought this superior gentleman with his refined tastes and proudly reticent manners, so many miles from home, to the forsaken den of a brace of hardy villains whose name for two years now, had stood as the type of all that was bold, bad and lawless, and for whom during the last six weeks the prison had yawned, and the gallows hungered. Contemplation brought no reply, and shocked at my own thoughts, I put the question by for steadier brains than mine; and instead of trying further to solve it, cast about how I was to gain entrance into this deserted building; for to enter it I was more than ever determined, now that I had heard to whom it had once belonged.
Examining with a glance the several roads that branched off in every direction from where I stood, I found them all equally deserted. Even the school children had disappeared in some one of the four or five houses scattered in the remote distance.
If I was willing to enter upon any daring exploit, there was no one to observe or interrupt. I resolved to make the attempt with which my mind was full. This was to climb the old tree, and from one of the two or three branches that brushed against the house, gain entrance at an open garret window that stared at me from amid the pine’s dark needles. Taking off my coat with a sigh over the immaculate condition of my new cassimere trousers, I bent my energies to the task. A difficult one you will say for a city lad, but thanks to fortune I was not brought up in New York, and know how to climb trees with the best. With little more than a scratch or so, I reached the window of which I have spoken, and after a moment spent in regaining my breath, gave one spring and accomplished my purpose. I alighted upon a heap of broken glass in a large bare room. An ominous chill at once struck to my heart. Though I am anything but a sensitive man as far as physical impressions are concerned, there was something in the hollow echo that arose from the four blank walls about me as my feet alighted on that rough, uncarpeted floor, that struck a vague chill through my blood, and I actually hesitated for the moment whether to pursue the investigations I had promised myself, or beat a hasty retreat. A glance at the huge distorted limbs swaying across the square of the open window decided me. It was easy to enter by means of that unsteady support, but it would be extremely unsafe to venture forth in that way. If I prized life and limb I must seek some other method of egress. I at once put my apprehensions in my pocket and entered upon my self imposed task.
A single glance was sufficient to exhaust the resources of the empty garret in which I found myself. Two or three old chairs piled in one corner, a rusty stove or so, a heap of tattered and decaying clothing, were all that met my gaze. Taking my way, then, at once to the ladder, whose narrow ends projecting above a hole in the garret floor, seemed to proffer the means of reaching the rooms below, I proceeded to descend into what to my excited imagination looked like a gulf of darkness. It proved, however, to be nothing more nor less than an unlighted hall of small dimensions, with a stair-case at one end and a door at the other, which, upon opening I found myself in a large, square room whose immense four-post bedstead entirely denuded of its usual accompaniments of bed and bolster at once struck my eye and for a moment held it enchained. There were other articles in the room; a disused bureau, a rocking chair, even a table, but nothing had such a ghostly look as that antique bedstead with its curtains of calico tied back over its naked framework, like rags draped from the bare bones of a skeleton. Passing hurriedly by, I tried a closet door or so, finding little, however, to reward my search; and eager to be done with what was every moment becoming more and more drearisome, I hastened across the floor to the front of the house where I found another hall and a row of rooms that, while not entirely stripped of furniture, were yet sufficiently barren to offer little encouragement to my curiosity. One only, a small but not uncomfortable apartment, showed any signs of having been occupied within a reasonable length of time; and as I paused before its hastily spread bed, thrown together as only a man would do it, and wondering why the room was so dark, looked up and saw that the window was entirely covered by an old shawl and a couple of heavy coats that had been hastily nailed across it, I own I felt my hand go to my breast pocket almost as if I expected to see the wild faces of the dreaded Schoenmakers start up all aglare from one of the dim corners before me. Rushing to the window, I tore down with one sweep of my arm both coat and shawl, and with a start discovered that the window still possessed its draperies in the shape of a pair of discolored and tattered curtains tied with ribbons that must once have been brilliant and cheery of color.
Nor was this the only sign in the room of a bygone presence that had possessed a taste for something beyond the mere necessities of life. On the grim coarsely papered wall hung more than one picture; cut from pictorial newspapers to be sure, but each and every one, if I may be called a judge of such matters, possessing some quality of expression to commend it to a certain order of taste. They were all strong pictures. Vivid faces of men and women in daring positions; a hunter holding back a jaguar from his throat; a soldier protecting his comrade from the stroke; and most striking of all, a woman lissome as she was powerful, starting aghast and horror stricken from — what? I could not tell; a rough hand had stripped the remainder of the picture from the wall.
A bit of candle and a half sheet of a newspaper lay on the floor. I picked up the paper. It was a Rutland Herald and bore the date of two days before. As I read I realized what I had done. If these daring robbers were not at this very moment in the house, they had been there, and that within two or three days. The broken panes of glass in the garret above were now explained. I was not the first one who had climbed that creaking pine tree this fall.
Something like a sensible dread of a very possible danger now seized hold of me. If I had stumbled upon these strangely subtile, yet devilishly bold creatures in their secret lair, the pistol I carried was not going to save me. Shut in like a fox in a hole, I had little to hope for, if they once made their appearance at the stairhead or came upon me from any of the dim halls of the crazy old dwelling, which I now began to find altogether too large for my comfort. Stealing cautiously forth from the room in which I had found so much to disconcert me, I crept towards the front staircase and listened. All was deathly quiet. The old pine tree moaned and twisted without, and from time to time the wind came sweeping down the chimney with an unearthly shrieking sound that was weirdly in keeping with the place. But within and below all was still as the tomb, and though in no ways reassured, I determined to descend and have the suspense over at once. I did so, pistol in hand and ears stretched to their utmost to catch the slightest rustle, but no sound came to disturb me, nor did I meet on this lower floor the sign of any other presence in the house but my own. Passing hastily through what appeared to be a sort of rude parlor, I stepped into the kitchen and tried one of the windows. Finding I could easily lift it from the inside, I drew my breath with ease for the first time since I had alighted among the broken glass above, and turning back, deliberately opened the door of the kitchen stove, and looked in. As I half expected, I found a pile of partly charred rags, showing where the wretches had burned their prison clothing, and proceeding further, picked up from the ashes a ring which whether or not they were conscious of having attempted to destroy in this way I cannot say, but which I thankfully put in my pocket against the day it might be required as proof.
Discerning nothing more in that quarter inviting interest, I asked myself if I had nerve to descend into the cellar. Finally concluding that that was more than could be expected from any man in my position, I gave one look of farewell to the damp and desolate walls about me, then with a breath of relief jumped from the kitchen window again into the light and air of day. As I did so I could swear I heard a door within that old house swing on its hinges and softly close. With a thrill I recognized the fact that it came from the cellar.
* * *
My thoughts on the road back to Melville were many and conflicting. Chief above them all, however, rose the comfortable conclusion that in the pursuit of one mysterious affair, I had stumbled, as is often the case, upon the clue to another of yet greater importance, and by so doing got a start that might yet redound greatly to my advantage. For the reward offered for the recapture of the Schoenmakers was large, and the possibility of my being the one to put the authorities upon their track, certainly appeared after this day’s developements, open at least to a very reasonable hope. At all events I determined not to let the grass grow under my feet till I had informed the Superintendent of what I had seen and heard that day in the old haunt of these two escaped convicts.
Arrived at the public house in Melville, and learning that Mr. Blake had safely returned there an hour before, I drew the landlord to one side and asked what he could tell me about that old house of the two noted robbers Schoenmaker, I had passed on my way back among the hills.
“Wa’al now,” replied he, “this is curious. Here I’ve just been answering the gentleman up stairs a heap of questions concerning that self same old place, and now you come along with another batch of them; just as if that rickety old den was the only spot of interest we had in these parts.”
“Perhaps that may be the truth,” I laughed. “Just now when the papers are full of these rogues, anything concerning them must be of superior interest of course.” And I pressed him again to give me a history of the house and the two thieves who had inhabited it.
“Wa’al,” drawled he “‘taint much we know about them, yet after all it may be a trifle too much for their necks some day. Time was when nobody thought especial ill of them beyond a suspicion or so of their being somewhat mean about money. That was when they kept an inn there, but when the robbery of the Rutland bank was so clearly traced to them, more than one man about here started up and said as how they had always suspected them Shoenmakers of being villains, and even hinted at something worse than robbery. But nothing beyond that one rascality has yet been proved against them, and for that they were sent to jail for twenty years as you know. Two months ago they escaped, and that is the last known of them. A precious set, too, they are; the father being only so much the greater rogue than the son as he is years older.”
“And the inn? When was that closed?”
“Just after their arrest.”
“Has’nt it been opened since?”
“Only once when a brace of detectives came up from Troy to investigate, as they called it.”
“Who has the key?”
“Ah, that’s more than I can tell you.”
I dared not ask how my questions differed from those of Mr. Blake, nor indeed touch upon that point in any way. I was chiefly anxious now to return to New York without delay; so paying my bill I thanked the landlord, and without waiting for the stage, remounted my horse and proceeded at once to Putney where I was fortunate enough to catch the evening train. By five o’clock next morning I was in New York where I proceeded to carry out my programme by hastening at once to headquarters and reporting my suspicions regarding the whereabouts of the Schoenmakers. The information was received with interest and I had the satisfaction of seeing two men despatched north that very day with orders to procure the arrest of the two notable villains wherever found.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55