Dark Hollow by Anna Katharine Green
Book I. The Woman in Purple
X. The Shadow
Bela was to be buried at four. As Judge Ostrander prepared to lock his gate behind the simple cortege which was destined to grow into a vast crowd before it reached the cemetery, he was stopped by the sergeant who whispered in his ear:
"I thought your honour might like to know that the woman--you know the one I mean without my naming her--has been amusing herself this morning in a very peculiar manner. She broke down some branches in the ravine,--small ones, of course,--and would give no account of herself when one of my men asked her what she was up to. It may mean nothing, but I thought you would like to know."
"Have you found out who she is?"
"No, sir. The man couldn't very well ask her to lift her veil, and at the tavern they have nothing to say about her."
"It's a small matter. I will see her myself today and find out what she wants of me. Meanwhile, remember that I leave this house and grounds absolutely to your protection for the next three hours. I shall be known to be absent, so that a more careful watch than ever is necessary. Not a man, boy or child is to climb the fence. I may rely on you?"
"You may, judge."
"On my return you can all go. I will guard my own property after to-day. You understand me, sergeant?"
"Perfectly, your honour."
This ended the colloquy.
Spencer's Folly, as the old ruin on the bluff was called in memory of the vanished magnificence which was once the talk of the county, presented a very different appearance to the eye in broad daylight from what it did at night with a low moon sending its mellow rays through the great gap made in its walls by that ancient stroke of lightning. Even the enkindling beams of the westering sun striking level through the forest failed to adorn its broken walls and battered foundations. To the judge, approaching it from the highway, it was as ugly a sight as the world contained. He hated its arid desolation and all the litter of blackened bricks blocking up the site of former feastings and reckless merriment, and, above all, the incongruous aspect of the one gable still standing undemolished, with the zigzag marks of vanished staircases outlined upon its mildewed walls. But, most of all, he shrank from a sight of the one corner still intact where the ghosts of dead memories lingered, making the whole place horrible to his eye and one to be shunned by all men. How long it had been shunned by him he realised when he noticed the increased decay of the walls and the growth of the verdure encompassing the abominable place!
The cemetery from which he had come looked less lonesome to his eyes and far less ominous; and, for a passing instant, as he contemplated the scene hideous with old memories and threatening new sorrows, he envied Bela his narrow bed and honourable rest.
A tall figure and an impressive presence are not without their disadvantages. This he felt as he left the highway and proceeded up the path which had once led through a double box hedge to the high, pillared entrance. He abhorred scandal and shrank with almost a woman's distaste from anything which savoured of the clandestine. Yet here he was about to meet on a spot open to the view of every passing vehicle, a woman who, if known to him, was a mystery to every one else. His expression showed the scorn with which he regarded his own compliance, yet he knew that no instinct of threatened dignity, no generous thought for her or selfish one for himself would turn him back from this interview till he had learned what she had to tell him and why she had so carefully exacted that he should hear her story in a spot overlooking the Hollow it would beseem them both to shun.
There had originally been in the days of Spencer's magnificence a lordly portico at the end of this approach, girt by pillars of extraordinary height. But no sign remained of pillar, or doorway-- only a gap, as I have said. Towards this gap he stepped, feeling a strange reluctance in entering it. But he had no choice. He knew what he should see--No, he did not know what he should see, for when he finally stepped in, it was not an open view of the Hollow which met his eyes, but the purple-clad figure of Mrs. Averill with little Peggy at her side. He had not expected to see the child, and, standing as they were with their backs to him, they presented a picture which, for some reason to be found in the mysterious recesses of his disordered mind, was exceedingly repellent to him. Indeed, he was so stricken by it that he had actually made a move to withdraw, when the exigency of the occasion returned upon him in full force, and, with a smothered oath, he overcame his weakness and stepped firmly up into the ruins.
The noise he made should have caused Deborah's tall and graceful figure to turn. But the spell of her own thoughts was too great; and he would have found himself compelled to utter the first word, if the child, who had heard him plainly enough, had not dragged at the woman's hand and so woke her from her dream.
"Ah, Judge Ostrander," she exclaimed in a hasty but not ungraceful greeting, "you are very punctual. I was not looking for you yet." Then, as she noted the gloom under which he was labouring, she continued with real feeling, "Indeed, I appreciate this sacrifice you have made to my wishes. It was asking a great deal of you to come here; but I saw no other way of making my point clear. Come over here, Peggy, and build me a little house out of these stones. You don't mind the child, do you, judge? She may offer a diversion if our retreat is invaded."
The gesture of disavowal which he made was courteous but insincere. He did mind the child, but he could not explain why; besides he must overcome such folly.
"Now," she continued as she rejoined him on the place where he had taken his stand, "I will ask you to go back with me to the hour when John Scoville left the tavern on that fatal day. I am not now on oath, but I might as well be for any slip I shall make in the exact truth. I was making pies in the kitchen, when some one came running in to say that Reuther had strayed away from the front yard. She was about the age of the little one over there, and we never allowed her out alone for fear of her tumbling off the bluff. So I set down the pie I was just putting in the oven, and was about to run out after her when my husband called to me from the front, and said he would go. I didn't like his tone--it was sullen and impatient, but I knew he loved the child too well to see her suffer any danger, and so I settled back to work and was satisfied enough till the pies were all in. Then I got uneasy, and, hearing nothing of either of them, I started in this direction because they told me John had taken the other. And here I found her, sir, right in the heart of these ruins. She was playing with stones just as Peggy dear is doing now. Greatly relieved, I was taking her away when I thought I heard John calling. Stepping up to the edge just behind where you are standing, sir--yes, there, where you get such a broad outlook up and down the ravine, I glanced in the direction from which I had heard his call--Just wait a moment, sir; I want to know the exact time."
Stopping, she pulled out her watch and looked at it, while he, faltering up to the verge which she had pointed out, followed her movements with strange intensity as she went on to say in explanation of her act:
"The time is important, on account of a certain demonstration I am anxious to make. You will remember that I was expecting to see John, having heard his voice in the ravine. Now if you will lean a little forward and look where I am pointing, you will notice at the turn of the stream, a spot of ground more open than the rest. Please keep your eyes on that spot, for it was there I saw at this very hour twelve years ago the shadow of an approaching figure; and it is there you will presently see one similar, if the boy I have tried to interest in this experiment does not fail me. Now, now, sir! We should see his shadow before we see him. Oh, I hope the underbrush and trees have not grown up too thick! I tried to thin them out to-day. Are you watching, sir?"
He seemed to be, but she dared not turn to look. Both figures leaned, intent, and in another moment she had gripped his arm and clung there.
"Did you see?" she whispered, "Don't mind the boy; it's the shadow I wanted you to notice. Did you observe anything marked about it?"
She had drawn him back into the ruins. They were standing in that one secluded corner under the ruinous gable, and she was gazing up at him very earnestly. "Tell me, judge," she entreated as he made no effort to answer.
With a hurried moistening of his lips, he met her look and responded, with a slight emphasis:
"The boy held a stick. I should say that he was whittling it."
"Ah!" Her tone was triumphant. "That was what I told him to do. Did you see anything else?"
"No. I do not understand this experiment or what you hope from it."
"I will tell you. The shadow which I saw at a moment very like this, twelve years ago, showed a man whittling a stick and wearing a cap with a decided peak in front. My husband wore such a cap-- the only one I knew of in town. What more did I need as proof that it was his shadow I saw?"
"And wasn't it?"
"Judge Ostrander, I never thought differently fill after the trial--till after the earth closed over my poor husband's remains. That was why I could say nothing in his defence--why I did not believe him when he declared that he had left his stick behind him when he ran up the bluff after Reuther. The tree he pointed out as the one against which he had stood it, was far behind the place where I saw this advancing shadow. Even the oath he made to me of his innocence at the last interview we held in prison did not impress me at the time as truthful. But later, when it was all over, when the disgrace of his death and the necessity of seeking a home elsewhere drove me into selling the tavern and all its effects, I found something which changed my mind in this regard, and made me confident that I had done my husband a great injustice."
"You found? What do you mean by that? What could you have found?"
"His peaked cap lying in a corner of the garret. He had not worn it that day."
The judge stared. She repeated her statement, and with more emphasis:
"He had not worn it that day; for when he came back to be hustled off again by the crowd, he was without hat of any kind, and he never returned again to his home--you know that, judge. I had seen the shadow of some other man approaching Dark Hollow. Whose, I am in this town now to find out."