Dark Hollow by Anna Katharine Green
Book III. The Door of Mystery
XXX. Tempest Lodge
"That's the cry of a loon."
"How awful! Do they often cry like that?"
"Not often in the nighttime."
Mr. Black regarded her anxiously. Had he done wrong to let her join him in this strange ride?
"Shall we go back and wait for broad daylight?" he asked.
"No, no. I could not bear the suspense of wondering whether all was going well and the opportunity being given you of seeing and speaking to him. We have taken such precautions--chosen so late (or should I say so early) a start--that I'm sure we have outwitted the man who is so watchful of us. But if we go back, we cannot slip away from him again; and Oliver will have to submit to an humiliation it is our duty to spare him. And the good judge, too. I don't care if the loons do cry; the night is beautiful."
And it was, had their hearts been in tune to enjoy it. A gibbous moon had risen, and, inefficient as it was to light up the recesses of the forest, it illumined the tree-tops and brought out the difference between earth and sky. The road, known to the horses, if not to themselves, extended like a black ribbon under their eyes, but the patches of light which fell across it at intervals took from it the uninterrupted gloom it must have otherwise had. Mr. Sloan, who was at once their guide and host, promised that dawn would be upon them before they reached the huge gully which was the one dangerous feature of the road. But as yet there were no signs of dawn; and to Reuther, as well as to Mr. Black, this ride through the heart of a wilderness in a darkness which might have been that of midnight by any other measure than that of the clock, had the effect of a dream in which one is only sufficiently in touch with past commonplaces to say, "This is a dream and not reality. I shall soon wake." A night to remember to the end of one's days; an experience which did not seem real at the time and was never looked back upon as real--and yet, one with which neither of them would have been willing to part.
Their guide had prophesied truly. Heralded by that long cry of the loon, the dawn began to reveal itself in clearness of perspective and a certain indefinable stir in the still, shrouded spaces of the woods. Details began to appear where heretofore all had been mass. Pearl tints proclaimed the east, and presently these were replaced by a flush of delicate colour deepening into rose, and the every-day world of the mighty forest was upon them with its night mystery gone.
But not the romance of their errand, or the anxiety which both felt as to its ultimate fulfilment. This it had been easier to face when they themselves as well as all about them, were but moving shadows in each other's eyes. Full sight brought full realisation. However they might seek to cloak the fact, they could no longer disguise from themselves that the object of their journey might not be acceptable to the man in hiding at Tempest Lodge. Reuther's faith in him was strong, but even her courage faltered as she thought of the disgrace awaiting him whatever the circumstances or however he might look upon his father's imperative command to return.
But she did not draw rein, and the three continued to ride up and on. Suddenly, however, one of them showed disturbance. Mr. Sloan was seen to turn his head sharply, and in another moment his two companions heard him say:
"We are followed. Ride on and leave me to take a look."
Instinctively they also glanced back before obeying. They were just rounding the top of an abrupt hill, and expected to have an uninterrupted view of the road behind. But the masses of foliage were as yet too thick for them to see much but the autumnal red and yellow spread out below them.
"I hear them; I do not see them," remarked their guide. "Two horses are approaching."
"How far are we now from the Lodge?"
"A half-hour's ride. We are just at the opening of the gully."
"You will join us soon?"
"As quickly as I make out who are on the horses behind us."
Reuther and the lawyer rode on. Her cheeks had gained a slight flush, but otherwise she looked unmoved. He was less at ease than she; for he had less to sustain him.
The gully, when they came to it, proved to be a formidable one. It was not only deep but precipitous, descending with the sheerness of a wall directly down from the road into a basin of enormous size, where trees stood here and there in solitary majesty, amid an area of rock forbidding to the eye and suggestive of sudden and impassable chasms. It was like circumambulating the sinuous verge of a canyon; and for the two miles they rode along its edge they saw no let-up in the steepness on one side or of the almost equally abrupt rise of towering rock on the other. It was Reuther's first experience of so precipitous a climb, and under other circumstances she might have been timid; but in her present heroic mood, it was all a part of her great adventure, and as such accepted.
The lawyer eyed her with growing admiration. He had not miscalculated her pluck.
As they were making a turn to gain the summit, they heard Mr. Sloan's voice behind them. Drawing in their horses, they greeted him eagerly when he appeared.
"Were you right? Are we followed?"
"That's as may be. I didn't hear or see anything more. I waited, but nothing happened, so I came on."
His words were surly and his looks sour; they, therefore, forebore to question him further, especially as their keenest interest lay ahead, rather than behind them. They were nearing Tempest Lodge. As it broke upon their view, perched like an eagle's eyrie on the crest of a rising peak, they drew rein, and, after a short consultation, Mr. Sloan wended his way up alone. He was a well- known man throughout the whole region, and would be likely to gain admittance if any one could. But all wished the hour had been less early.
However, somebody was up in the picturesque place. A small trail of smoke could be seen hovering above its single chimney, and promptly upon Mr. Sloan's approach, a rear door swung back and an old man showed himself, but with no hospitable intent. On the contrary, he motioned the intruder back, and shouting out some very decided words, resolutely banged the door shut.
Mr. Sloan turned slowly about.
"Bad luck," he commented, upon joining his companions. "That was Deaf Dan. He's got a warm nest here, and he's determined to keep it. 'No visitors wanted,' was what he shouted, and he didn't even hold out his hand when I offered him the letter."
"Give me the letter," said Reuther. "He won't leave a lady standing out in the cold."
Mr. Sloan handed over the judge's message, and helped her down, and she in turn began to approach the place. As she did so, she eyed it with the curiosity of a hungry heart. It was a compact structure of closely cemented stone, built to resist gales and harbour a would-be recluse, even in an Adirondack winter. One end showed stacks of wood through its heavily glazed windows, and between the small stable and the west door there ran a covered way which insured communication, even when the snow lay high about the windows.
The place had a history which she learned later. At present all her thoughts were on its possible occupant and the very serious question of whether she would or would not gain admittance to him.
Mr. Sloan had been repulsed from the west door; she would try the east. Oliver (if Oliver it were) was probably asleep; but she would knock, and knock, and knock; and if Deaf Dan did not open, his master soon would.
But when she found herself in face of this simple barrier, her emotion was so strong that she recoiled in spite of herself, and turned her face about as if to seek strength from the magnificence of the outlook.
But though the scene was one of splendour inconceivable, she did not see it. Her visions were all inner ones. But these were not without their strengthening power, as was soon shown. For presently she turned back and was lifting her hand to the door, when it suddenly flew open and a man appeared before her.
It was Oliver. Oliver unkempt and with signs upon him of a night's work of study or writing; but Oliver!--her lover once, but now just a stranger into whose hand she must put this letter.
She tried to stammer out her errand; but the sudden pallor, the starting eyes--the whole shocked, almost terrified appearance of the man she was facing, stopped her. She forgot the surprise, the incredulity of mind with which he would naturally hail her presence at his door in a place so remote and of such inaccessibility. She only saw that his hands had gone up and out at sight of her, and to her sensitive soul, this looked like a rebuff which, while expected, choked back her words and turned her faintly flushing cheek scarlet.
"It is not I," burst from her lips in incoherent disclaimer of his possible thought. "I'm just a messenger. Your father--"
"It is you!" Quickly his hands passed across his eyes. "How--" Then his glance, following hers, fell on the letter which she now remembered to hold out.
"It's the copy of a telegram," she tremblingly explained, as he continued to gaze at it without reaching to take it. "You could not be found in Detroit and as it was important that you should receive this word from your father, I undertook to deliver it. I remembered your fondness for this place and how you once said that this is where you would like to write your book, and so I came on a venture--but not alone--Mr. Black is with me and--"
"Mr. Black! Who? What?" He was still staring at his father's letter; and still had made no offer to take it.
"Read this first," said she.
Then he woke to the situation. He took the letter, and drawing her inside, shut the door while he read it. She, trembling very much, did not dare to lift her eyes to watch its effect, but she was conscious that his back and not his face was turned her way, and that the moment was the stillest one of her whole life.
Then there came a rattling noise as he crushed the letter in his hand.
"Tell me what this means," said he, but he did not turn his head as he made this request.
"Your father must do that," was her gentle reply. "I was only to deliver the letter. I came--we came--thus early, because we thought--we feared we should get no opportunity later to find you here alone. There seem to be people on the road--whom--whom you might feel obliged to entertain and as your father cannot wait--"
He had wheeled about. His face confronted hers. It wore a look she did not understand and which made him seem a stranger to her. Involuntarily she took a step back.
"I must be going now," said she, and fell--her physical weakness triumphing at last over her will power.