Dark Hollow by Anna Katharine Green
Book I. The Woman in Purple
IV. "And Where Was I When All this Happened?"
The intensity of the question, the compelling, self-forgetful passion of the man, had a startling effect upon the crowd of people huddled before him. With one accord, and without stopping to pick their way, they made for the open doorway, knocking the smaller pieces of furniture about and creating havoc generally. Some fled the house; others stopped to peer in again from behind the folds of the curtain which had been only partially torn from its fastenings. Miss Weeks was the only one to stand her ground.
When the room was quite cleared and the noise abated (it was a frightful experience to see how little the judge had been affected by all this hubbub of combined movement and sound), she stepped within the line of his vision and lifted her feeble and ineffectual hand in an effort to attract his attention to herself.
But he did not notice her, any more than he had noticed the others. Still looking in the one direction, he cried aloud in troubled tones:
"She stood there! the woman stood there and I saw her! Where is she now?"
"She is no longer in the house," came in gentle reply from the only one in or out of the room courageous enough to speak. "She went out when she saw us coming. We knew that she had no right to be here. That is why we intruded ourselves, sir. We did not like the looks of her, and so followed her in to prevent mischief."
The expletive fell unconsciously. He seemed to be trying to adjust himself to some mental experience he could neither share with others nor explain to himself.
"She was here, then?--a woman with a little child? It wasn't an illusion, a--." Memory was coming back and with it a realisation of his position. Stopping short, he gazed down from his great height upon the trembling little body of whose identity he had but a vague idea, and thundered out in great indignation:
"How dared you! How dared she!" Then as his mind regained its full poise, "And how, even if you had the temerity to venture an entrance here, did you manage to pass my gates? They are never open. Bela sees to that."
He may have observed the pallor which blanched her small, tense features as this name fell so naturally from his lips, or some instinct of his own may have led him to suspect tragedy where all was so abnormally still, for, as she watched, she saw his eyes, fixed up to now upon her face, leave it and pass furtively and with many hesitations from object to object, towards that spot behind him, where lay the source of her great terror, if not of his. So lingeringly and with such dread was this done, that she could barely hold back her weak woman's scream in the intensity of her suspense. She knew just where his glances fell without following them with her own. She saw them pass the door where so many faces yet peered in (he saw them not), and creep along the wall beyond, inch by inch, breathlessly and with dread, till finally, with fatal precision, they reached the point where the screen had stood, and not finding it, flew in open terror to the door it was set there to conceal--when that something else, huddled in oozing blood, on the floor beneath, drew them unto itself with the irresistibleness of grim reality, and he forgot all else in the horror of a sight for which his fears, however great, had failed to prepare him.
Dead! Bela! Dead! and lying in his blood! The rest may have been no dream, but this was surely one, or his eyes, used to inner visions, were playing him false.
Grasping the table at his side to steady his failing limbs, he pulled himself along by its curving edge till he came almost abreast of the helpless figure which for so many years had been the embodiment of faithful and unwearied service.
Then and then only, did the truth of his great misfortune burst upon his bewildered soul; and with a cry which tore the ears of all hearers and was never forgotten by any one there, he flung himself down beside the dead negro, and, turning him hastily over, gazed in his face.
Was that a sob? Yes; thus much the heart gave; but next moment the piteous fact of loss was swallowed up in the recognition of its manner, and, bounding to his feet with the cry, "Killed! Killed at his post!" he confronted the one witness of his anguish of whose presence he was aware, and fiercely demanded: "Where are the wretches who have done this? No single arm could have knocked down Bela. He has been set upon--beaten with clubs, and--" Here his thought was caught up by another, and that one so fearsome and unsettling that bewilderment again followed rage, and with the look of a haunted spirit, he demanded in a voice made low by awe and dread of its own sound, "and where was I, when all this happened?"
"You? You were seated there," murmured the little woman, pointing at the great chair. "You were not--quite--quite yourself," she softly explained, wondering at her own composure. Then quickly, as she saw his thoughts revert to the dead friend at his feet, "Bela was not hurt here. He was down town when it happened; but he managed to struggle home and gain this place, which he tried to hold against the men who followed him. He thought you were dead, you sat there so rigid and so white, and, before he quite gave up, he asked us all to promise not to let any one enter this room till your son Oliver came."
Understanding partly, but not yet quite clear in his mind, the judge sighed, and stooping again, straightened the faithful negro's limbs. Then, with a sidelong look in her direction, he felt in one of the pockets of the dead negro's coat, and drawing out a small key, held it in one hand while he fumbled in his own for another, which found, he became on the instant his own man again.
Miss Weeks, seeing the difference in him, and seeing too, that the doorway was now clear of the wondering, awestruck group which had previously blocked it, bowed her slight body and proceeded to withdraw; but the judge, staying her by a gesture, she waited patiently near one of the book-racks against which she had stumbled, to hear what he had to say.
"I must have had an attack of some kind," he calmly remarked. "Will you be good enough to explain exactly what occurred here that I may more fully comprehend my own misfortune and the death of this faithful friend?"
Then she saw that his faculties were now fully restored, and came a step forward. But before she could begin her story, he added this searching question:
"Was it he who let you in--you and others--I think you said others? Was it he who unlocked my gates?"
Miss Weeks sighed and betrayed fluster. It was not easy to relate her story; besides it was wofully incomplete. She knew nothing of what had happened down town, she could only tell what had passed before her eyes. But there was one thing she could make clear, to him, and that was how the seemingly impassable gates had been made ready for the woman's entrance and afterwards taken such advantage of by herself and others. A pebble had done it all,--a pebble placed in the gateway by Bela's hands.
As she described this, and insisted upon the fact in face of the judge's almost frenzied disclaimer, she thought she saw the hair move on his forehead. Bela a traitor, and in the interests of the woman who had fronted him from the other end of the room at the moment consciousness had left him! Evidently this intrusive little body did not know Bela or his story, or--
Why should interruption come then? Why was he stopped, when in the passion of the moment, he might have let fall some word of enlightenment which would have eased the agitated curiosity of the whole town! Miss Weeks often asked herself this question, and bewailed the sudden access of sounds in the rooms without, which proclaimed the entrance of the police and put a new strain upon the judge's faculty of self-control and attention to the one matter in hand.
The commonplaces of an official inquiry were about to supersede the play of a startled spirit struggling with a problem of whose complexities he had received but a glimpse.