Dark Hollow by Anna Katharine Green
Book I. The Woman in Purple
II. Was He Living?--Was He Dead?
Meantime, a fussy, talkative man was endeavouring to impress the rapidly collecting crowd with the advisability of their entering all together and approaching the judge in a body.
"We can say that we felt it to be our dooty to follow this woman in," he argued. "We don't know who she is, or what her errand is. She may mean harm; I've heard of such things, and are we goin' to see the judge in danger and do nothin'?"
"Oh, the woman's all right," spoke up another voice. "She has a child with her. Didn't you say she had a child with her, Miss Weeks?"
"Tell us the whole story, Miss Weeks. Some of us haven't heard it. Then if it seems our duty as his neighbours and well-wishers to go in, we'll just go in."
The little woman towards whom this appeal--or shall I say command- -was directed, flushed a fine colour under so many eyes, but immediately began her ingenuous tale. She had already related it a half dozen times into as many sympathising ears, but she was not one to shirk publicity, for all her retiring manners and meekness of disposition.
It was to this effect:
She was sitting in her front window sewing. (Everybody knew that this window faced the end of the lane in which they were then standing.) The blinds were drawn but not quite, being held in just the desired position by a string. Naturally, she could see out without being very plainly seen herself; and quite naturally, too, since she had watched the same proceeding for years, she had her eyes on this gate when Bela, prompt to the minute as he always was, issued forth on his morning walk to town for the day's supplies.
Always exact, always in a hurry--knowing as he did that the judge would not leave for court till his return--he had never, in all the eight years she had been sitting in that window making button- holes, shown any hesitation in his methodical relocking of the gate and subsequent quick departure.
But this morning he had neither borne himself with his usual spirit nor moved with his usual promptitude. Instead of stepping at once into the lane, he had lingered in the gate-way peering to right and left and pushing the gravel aside with his foot in a way so unlike himself that the moment he was out of sight, she could not help running down the lane to see if her suspicions were correct.
And they were. Not only had he left the gate unlocked, but he had done so purposely. The movement he had made with his foot had been done for the purpose of pushing into place a small pebble, which, as all could see, lay where it would best prevent the gate from closing.
What could such treachery mean, and what was her neighbourly duty under circumstances so unparalleled? Should she go away, or stop and take one peep just to see that there really was another and similar fence inside of this one? She had about decided that it was only proper for her to enter and make sure that all was right with the judge, when she experienced that peculiar sense of being watched with which all of us are familiar, and turning quickly round, saw a woman looking at her from the road,--a woman all in purple even to the veil which hid her features. A little child was with her, and the two must have stepped into the road from behind some of the bushes, as neither of them were anywhere in sight when she herself came running down from the corner.
It was enough to startle any one, especially as the woman did not speak but just stood silent and watchful till Miss Weeks in her embarrassment began to edge away towards home in the hope that the other would follow her example and so leave the place free for her to return and take the little peep she had promised herself.
But before she had gone far, she realised that the other was not following her, but was still standing in the same spot, watching her through a veil the like of which is not to be found in Shelby, and which in itself was enough to rouse a decent woman's suspicions.
She was so amazed at this that she stepped back and attempted to address the stranger. But before she had got much further than a timid and hesitating Madam, the woman, roused into action possibly by her interference, made a quick gesture suggestive of impatience if not rebuke, and moving resolutely towards the gate Miss Weeks had so indiscreetly left unguarded, pushed it open and disappeared within, dragging the little child after her.
The audacity of this act, perpetrated without apology before Miss Weeks' very eyes, was too much for that lady's equanimity. She stopped stock-still, and, as she did so, beheld the gate swing heavily to and stop an inch from the post, hindered as we know by the intervening pebble. She had scarcely got over the shock of this when plainly from the space beyond she heard a second creaking noise, then the swinging to of another gate, followed, after a breathless moment of intense listening, by a series of more distant sounds, which could only be explained by the supposition that the house door had been reached, opened and passed.
"And you didn't follow?"
"I didn't dare."
"And she's in there still?"
"I haven't seen her come out."
"Then what's the matter with you?" called out a burly, high-strung woman, stepping hastily from the group and laying her hand upon the gate still standing temptingly ajar. "It's no time for nonsense," she announced, as she pushed it open and stepped promptly in, followed by the motley group of men and women who, if they lacked courage to lead, certainly showed willingness enough to follow.
One glance and they felt their courage rewarded.
Rumour, which so often deceives, proved itself correct in this case. A second gate confronted them exactly like the first even to the point of being held open by a pebble placed against the post. And a second fence also! built upon the same pattern as the one they had just passed through; the two forming a double barrier as mysterious to contemplate in fact as it had ever been in fancy. In gazing at these fences and the canyon-like walk stretching between them, the band of curious invaders forgot their prime errand. Many were for entering this path whose terminus they could not see for the sharp turns it took in rounding either corner. Among them was a couple of girls who had but one thought, as was evinced by their hurried whispers. "If it looks like this in the daytime, what must it be at night!" To which came the quick retort: "I've heard that the judge walks here. Imagine it under the moon!"
But whatever the mysteries of the place, a greater one awaited them beyond, and presently realising this, they burst with one accord through the second gate into the mass of greenery, which, either from neglect or intention, masked this side of the Ostrander homestead.
Never before had they beheld so lawless a growth or a house so completely lost amid vines and shrubbery. So unchecked had been the spread of verdure from base to chimney, that the impression made by the indistinguishable mass was one of studied secrecy and concealment. Not a window remained in view, and had it not been for some chance glimmers here and there where some small, unguarded portion of the enshrouded panes caught and reflected the sunbeams, they could not have told where they were located in these once well-known walls.
Two solemn fir trees, which were all that remained of an old-time and famous group, kept guard over the untended lawn, adding their suggestion of age and brooding melancholy to the air of desolation infecting the whole place. One might be approaching a tomb for all token that appeared of human presence. Even sound was lacking. It was like a painted scene--a dream of human extinction.
Instinctively the women faltered and the men drew back; then the very silence caused a sudden reaction, and with one simultaneous rush, they made for the only entrance they saw and burst without further ceremony into the house.
A common hall and common furnishings confronted them. They had entered at the side and were evidently close upon the kitchen. More they could not gather; for blocked as the doorway was by their crowding figures, the little light which sifted in over their heads was not enough to show up details.
But it was even darker in the room towards which their determined leader now piloted them. Here there was no light at all; or if some stray glimmer forced its way through the network of leaves swathing the outer walls, it was of too faint a character to reach the corners or even to make the furniture about them distinguishable.
Halting with one accord in what seemed to be the middle of the uncarpeted floor, they waited for some indication of a clear passageway to the great room where the judge would undoubtedly be found in conversation with his strange guest, unless, forewarned by their noisy entrance, he should have risen already to meet them. In that case they might expect at any minute to see his tall form emerging in anger upon them through some door at present unseen.
This possibility, new to some but recognised from the first by others, fluttered the breasts of such as were not quite impervious to a sense of their own presumption, and as they stood in a close group, swaying from side to side in a vain endeavour to see their way through the gloom before them, the whimper of a child and the muttered ejaculations of the men testified that the general feeling was one of discontent which might very easily end in an outburst of vociferous expression.
But the demon of curiosity holds fast and as soon as their eyes had become sufficiently used to the darkness to notice the faint line of light marking the sill of a door directly in front of them, they all plunged forward in spite of the fear I have mentioned.
The woman of the harsh voice and self-satisfied demeanour, who had started them upon this adventure, was still ahead; but even she quailed when, upon laying her hand upon the panel of the door she was the first to reach, she felt it to be cold and knew it to be made not of wood but of iron. How great must be the treasure or terrible the secret to make necessary such extraordinary precautions! Was it for her to push open this door, and so come upon discoveries which--
But here her doubts were cut short by finding herself face to face with a heavy curtain instead of a yielding door. The pressure of the crowd behind had precipitated her past the latter into a small vestibule which acted as an ante-chamber to the very room they were in search of.
The shock restored her self-possession. Bracing herself, she held her place for a moment, while she looked back, with a finger laid on her lip. The light was much better here and they could all see both the move she made and the expression which accompanied it.
"Look at this!" she whispered, pushing the curtain inward with a quick movement.
Her hand had encountered no resistance. There was nothing between them and the room beyond but a bit of drapery.
"Now hark, all of you," fell almost soundlessly from her lips, as she laid her own ear against the curtain.
And they hearkened.
Not a murmur came from within, not so much as the faintest rustle of clothing or the flutter of a withheld breath. All was perfectly still--too still. As the full force of this fact impressed itself upon them, a blankness settled over their features. The significance of this undisturbed quiet was making itself felt. If the two were there, or if he were there alone, they would certainly hear some movement, voluntary or involuntary--and they could hear nothing. Was the woman gone? Had she found her way out front while they approached from the rear? And the judge! Was he gone also?--this man of inalterable habits--gone before Bela's return--a thing he had not been known to do in the last twelve years? No, no, this could not be. Yet even this supposition was not so incredible as that he should still be here and silent. Men like him do not hold their peace under a provocation so great as the intrusion of a mob of strangers into a spot where he never anticipated seeing anybody, nor had seen anybody but his man Bela for years. Soon they would hear his voice. It was not in nature for him to be as quiet as this in face of such audacity.
Yet who could count upon the actions of an Ostrander, or reckon with the imperious whims of a man mysterious beyond all precedent?--He may be there but silent, or--
A single glance would settle all.
The woman drew the curtain.
Sunshine! A stream of it, dazzling them almost to blindness and sending them, one and all, pellmell back upon each other! However dismal the approach, here all was in brilliant light with every evidence before them of busy life.
The room was not only filled, but crammed, with furniture. This was the first thing they noticed; then, as their blinking eyes became accustomed to the glare and to the unexpected confusion of tables and chairs and screens and standing receptacles for books and pamphlets and boxes labelled and padlocked, they beheld something else; something, which once seen, held the eye from further wandering and made the apprehensions from which they had suffered sink into insignificance before a real and only too present terror.
The judge was there! but in what a condition.
From the end of the forty foot room, his seated figure confronted them, silent, staring and unmoving. With clenched fingers gripping the arms of his great chair, and head held forward, he looked like one frozen at the moment of doom, such the expression of features usually so noble, and now almost unrecognisable were it not for the snow of his locks and his unmistakable brow.
Frozen! Not an eyelash quivered, nor was there any perceptible movement in his sturdy chest. His eyes were on their eyes, but he saw no one; and down upon his head and over his whole form the sunshine poured from a large window let into the ceiling directly above him, lighting up the strained and unnatural aspect of his remarkable countenance and bringing into sharp prominence the commonplace objects cluttering the table at his elbow; such as his hat and gloves, and the bundle of papers he had doubtless made ready for court.
Was he living? Was he dead?--stricken by the sight of so many faces in a doorway considered sacred from all intrusion? No! the emotion capable of thus transforming the features of so strong a man must have a deeper source than that. The woman was to blame for this--the audacious, the unknown, the mysteriously clad woman. Let her be found. Let her be made to explain herself and the condition into which she had thrown this good man.
Indignation burst into words, and pity was beginning to voice itself in inarticulate murmurs which swelled and ebbed, now louder, now more faintly as the crowd surged forward or drew back, appalled by that moveless, breathless, awe-compelling figure. Indignation and pity were at their height when the strain which held them all in one common leash was loosed by the movement of a little child.
Attracted possibly by what it did not understand, or simply made fearless because of its non-comprehension of the mystery before him, a curly-haired boy suddenly escaped its mother's clutch, and, toddling up by a pathway of his own to the awesome form in the great chair, laid his little hand on the judge's rigid arm and, looking up into his face, babbled out:
"Why don't you get up, man? I like oo better up."
A breathless moment; then the horrified murmur rose here, there and everywhere: "He's dead! He's dead!" and the mother, with a rush, caught the child back, and confusion began its reign, when quietly and convincingly a bluff and masculine voice spoke from the doorway behind them and they heard:
"You needn't be frightened. In an hour or a half-hour he will be the same as ever. My aunt has such attacks. They call it catalepsy."