Dark Hollow by Anna Katharine Green
Book I. The Woman in Purple
XII. Sounds in the Night
Over this letter Deborah Scoville sat for two hours, then she rang for Mrs. Yardley.
The maid who answered her summons surveyed her in amazement. It was the first time that she had seen her uncovered face.
Mrs. Yardley was not long in coming up.
"Mrs. Averill--" she began in a sort of fluster, as she met her strange guest's quiet eye.
But she got no further. That guest had a correction to make.
"My name is not Averill," she protested. "You must excuse the temporary deception. It is Scoville. I once occupied your present position in this house."
Mrs. Yardley had heard all about the Scovilles; and, while a flush rose to her cheeks, her eyes snapped with sudden interest.
"Ah!" came in quick exclamation, followed, however, by an apologetic cough and the somewhat forced and conventional remark: "You find the place changed, no doubt?"
"Very much so, and for the better, Mrs. Yardley." Then, with a straightforward meeting of the other's eye calculated to disarm whatever criticism the situation might evoke, she quietly added, "You need no longer trouble yourself with serving me my meals in my room. I will eat dinner in the public dining-room to-day with the rest of the boarders. I have no further reason for concealing who I am or what my future intentions are. I am going to live with Judge Ostrander, Mrs. Yardley;--keep house for him, myself and daughter. His man is dead and he feels very helpless. I hope that I shall be able to make him comfortable."
Mrs. Yardley's face was a study. In all her life she had never heard news that surprised her more. In fact, she was mentally aghast. Judge Ostrander admitting any one into his home, and this woman above all! Yet, why not? He, certainly, would have to have some one. And this woman had always been known as a notable housekeeper. In another moment, she had accepted the situation, like the very sensible woman she was, and Mrs. Scoville had the satisfaction of seeing the promise of real friendly support in the smile with which Mrs. Yardley remarked:
"It's a good thing for you and a very good thing for the judge. It may shake him out of his habit of seclusion. If it does, you will be the city's benefactor. Good luck to you, madam. And you have a daughter, you say?"
After Mrs. Yardley's departure, Mrs. Scoville, as she now expected herself to be called, sat for a long time brooding. Would her quest be facilitated or irretrievably hindered by her presence in the judge's house? She had that yet to learn. Meanwhile, there was one thing more to be accomplished. She set about it that evening.
Veiled, but in black now, she went into town. Getting down at the corner of Colburn Avenue and Perry Street, she walked a short distance on Perry, then rang the bell of an attractive-looking house of moderate dimensions. Being admitted, she asked to see Mr. Black, and for an hour sat in close conversation with him. Then she took a trolley-car which carried her into the suburbs. When she alighted, it was unusually late for a woman to be out alone; but she had very little physical fear, and walked on steadily enough for a block or two till she came to a corner, where a high fence loomed forbiddingly between her and a house so dark that it was impossible to distinguish between its chimneys and the encompassing trees whose swaying tops could be heard swishing about uneasily in the keen night air. An eerie accompaniment, this latter, to the beating of Deborah's heart already throbbing with anticipation and keyed to an unusual pitch by her own daring.
Was she quite alone in the seemingly quiet street? She could hear no one, see no one. A lamp burned in front of Miss Weeks' small house, but the road it illumined (I speak of the one running down to the ravine) showed only darkened houses.
She had left the corner and was passing the gate of the Ostrander homestead, when she heard, coming from some distant point within, a low and peculiar sound which held her immovable for a moment, then sent her on shuddering.
It was the sound of hammering.
What is there in a rat-tat-tat in the dead of night which rouses the imagination and fills the mind with suggestions which we had rather not harbour when in the dark and alone? Deborah Scoville was not superstitious, but she had keen senses and mercurial spirits and was easily moved by suggestion.
Hearing this sound and locating it where she did, she remembered, with a quick inner disturbance, that the judge's house held a secret; a secret of such import to its owner that the dying Bela had sought to preserve it at the cost of his life.
Oh, she had heard all about that! The gossip at Claymore Inn had been great, and nothing had been spared her curiosity. There was something in this house which it behooved the judge to secrete from sight yet more completely before her own and Reuther's entrance, and he was at work upon it now, hammering with his own hand while other persons slept! No wonder she edged her way along the fence with a shrinking, yet persistent, step. She was circling her future home and that house held a mystery.
And yet, like any other imaginative person under a stress of aroused feeling, she might very easily be magnifying some commonplace act into one of terrifying possibilities. One can hammer very innocently in his own house, even at night, when making preparations to receive fresh inmates after many years of household neglect.
She recognised her folly before reaching the adjoining field. But she went on. Where the fence turned, she turned, there being no obstruction to her doing so. This brought her into a wilderness of tangled grasses where free stepping was difficult. As she groped her way along, she had ample opportunity to hear again the intermittent sounds of the hammer, and to note that they reached their maximum at a point where the ell of the judge's study approached the fences.
Rat-tat-tat; rat-tat-tat. She hated the sound even while she whispered to herself:
"It is just some household matter he is at work upon;--rehanging pictures or putting up shelves. It can be nothing else."
Yet on laying her ear to the fence, she felt her sinister fears return; and, with shrinking glances into a darkness which told her nothing, she added in fearful murmur to herself:
"What am I taking Reuther into? I wish I knew. I wish I knew."