Dark Hollow by Anna Katharine Green
Book I. The Woman in Purple
V. "She Wore Purple"
The library again! but how changed! Evening light now instead of blazing sunshine; and evening light so shaded that the corners seemed far and the many articles of furniture, cumbering the spaces between, larger for the shadows in which they stood hidden. Perhaps the man who sat there in company with the judge regretted this. Perhaps, he would have preferred to see more perfectly that portion of the room where Bela had taken his stand and finally fallen. It would have been interesting to note whether the screen had been replaced before the mysterious door which this most devoted of servants had protected to his last gasp. Curiosity is admissible, even in a man, when the cause is really great.
But from the place where he sat there was no getting any possible view of that part of the wall or of anything connected with it; and so, with every appearance of satisfaction at being allowed in the room at all, Sergeant Doolittle from Headquarters, drank the judge's wine and listened for the judge's commands.
These were slow in coming, and they were unexpected when they came.
"Sergeant, I have lost a faithful servant under circumstances which have called an unfortunate attention to my house. I should like to have this place guarded--carefully guarded, you understand--from any and all intrusion till I can look about me and secure protection of my own. May I rely upon the police to do this, beginning to-night at an early hour? There are loiterers already at the corner and in front of the two gates. I am not accustomed to these attentions, and ask to have my fence cleared."
"Two men are already detailed for the job, your honour. I heard the order given just as I left Headquarters."
The judge showed small satisfaction. Indeed, in his silence there was the hint of something like displeasure. This surprised Sergeant Doolittle and led him to attempt to read its cause in his host's countenance. But the shade of the lamp intervened too completely, and he had to be content to wait till the judge chose to speak, which he presently did, though not in the exact tones the Sergeant expected.
"Two men! Couldn't I have three? One for each gate and one to patrol the fence separating these grounds from the adjoining lot?"
The sergeant hesitated; he felt an emotion of wonder--a sense of something more nearly approaching the uncanny than was usual to his matter-of-fact mind. He had heard, often enough, what store the judge set on his privacy and of the extraordinary measures he had taken to insure it, but that a man, even if he aped the hermit, should consider three men necessary to hold the public away from a two hundred and fifty foot lot argued apprehensions of a character verging on the ridiculous. But he refrained from expressing his surprise and replied, after a minute of thought:
"If two men are not enough to ensure you a quiet sleep, you shall have three or four or even more, Judge Ostrander. Do you want one of them to stay inside? That might do the business better than a dozen out."
"No. While Bela lies above ground, we want no third here. When he is buried, I may call upon you for a special to watch my room door. But it's of outside protection we're talking now. Only, who is to protect me against your men?"
"What do you mean by that, your honour?"
"They are human, are they not? They have instincts of curiosity like the rest of us. How can I be made sure that they won't yield to the temptation of their position and climb the fences they are detailed to guard?"
"And would this be so fatal to your peace, judge?" A smile tempered the suggestion.
"It would be a breach of trust which would greatly disturb me. I want nobody on my grounds, nobody at all. Has not my long life of solitude within these walls sufficiently proved this? I want to feel that these men of yours would no more climb my fence than they would burst into my house without a warrant."
Judge, I will be one of the men. You can trust me."
"Thank you, sergeant; I appreciate the favour. I shall rest now as quietly as any man can who has met with a great loss. The coroner's inquiry has decided that the injuries which Bela received in the street were of a fatal character and would have killed him within an hour, even if he had not exhausted his strength in the effort he made to return to his home and die in my presence. But I shall always suffer from regret that I was not in a condition to receive his last sigh. He was a man in a thousand. One seldom sees his like among white or black."
"He was a very powerfully built man. It took a sixty horse-power racing machine, going at a high rate of speed, to kill him."
A spasm of grief or unavailing regret crossed the judge's face as his head sank back again against the high back of his chair.
"Enough," said he; "tread softly when you go by the sofa on which he lies. Will you fill your glass again, sergeant?"
The sergeant declined.
"Not if my watch is to be effective to-night," he smiled, and rose to depart.
The judge, grown suddenly thoughtful, rapped with his finger-tips on the table-edge. He had not yet risen to show his visitor out.
"I should like to ask a question," he finally observed, motioning the other to re-seat himself. "You were not at the inquiry this afternoon, and may not know that just as Bela and the crowd about him turned this corner, they ran into a woman leading a small child, who stopped the whole throng in order to address him. No one heard what she said; and no one could give any information as to who she was or in what direction she vanished. But I saw that woman myself, earlier. She was in this house. She was in this room. She came as far as that open space just inside the doorway. I can describe her, and will, if you will consent to look for her. It is to be a money transaction, sergeant, and if she is found and no stir made and no talk started among the Force, I will pay all that you think it right to demand."
"Let me hear her description, your honour." The judge, who had withdrawn into the shadow, considered for a moment, then said:
"I cannot describe her features, for she was heavily veiled; neither can I describe her figure except to say that she is tall and slender. But her dress I remember to the last detail, though I am not usually so observant. She wore purple; not an old woman's purple, but a soft shade which did not take from her youth. There was something floating round her shoulders of the same colour, and on her arms were long gloves such as you see our young ladies wear. The child did not seem to belong to her, though she held her tightly by the hand. I mean by that, that its clothes were of a coarser material than hers and perhaps were a little soiled. If the child wore a hat, I do not remember it. In age it appeared to be about six--or that was the impression I received before--"
The sergeant, who had been watching the speaker very closely, leaned forward with a hasty, inquiring glance expressive of something like consternation. Was the judge falling again into unconsciousness? Was he destined to witness in this solitary meeting a return of the phenomenon which had so startled the intruding populace that morning?
No, or if he had been witness to something of the kind, it was for a moment only; for the eyes which had gone blank had turned his way again, and only a disconnected expression which fell from the judge's lips, showed that his mind had been wandering.
"It's not the same but another one; that's all."
Inconsequent words, but the sergeant meant to remember them, for with their utterance, a change passed over the judge; and his manner, which had been constrained and hurried during his attempted description, became at once more natural, and therefore more courteous.
"Do you think you can find her with such insufficient data? A woman dressed in purple, leading a little child without any hat?"
"Judge, I not only feel sure that I can find her, but I think she is found already. Do you remember the old tavern on the Rushville road? I believe they call it an inn now, or some such fancy name."
The judge sat quiet, but the sergeant who dared not peer too closely, noticed a sudden constriction in the fingers of the hand with which his host fingered a paper-cutter lying on the table between them.
"The one where--"
"I respect your hesitation, judge. Yes, the one run by the man you sentenced--"
A gesture had stopped him. He waited respectfully for the judge's next words.
They came quickly and with stern and solemn emphasis.
"For a hideous and wholly unprovoked crime. Why do you mention it and--and his tavern?"
"Because of something I have lately heard in its connection. You know that the old house has been all made over since that time and run as a place of resort for automobilists in search of light refreshments. The proprietor's name is Yardley. We have nothing against him; the place is highly respectable. But it harbours a boarder, a permanent one, I believe, who has occasioned no little comment. No one has ever seen her face; unless it is the landlord's wife. She has all her meals served in her room, and when she goes out she wears the purple dress and purple veil you've been talking about. Perhaps she's your visitor of to-day. Hadn't I better find out?"
"Has she a child? Is she a mother?"
"I haven't heard of any child, but Mrs. Yardley has seven."
The judge's hand withdrew from the table and for an instant the room was so quiet that you could hear some far-off clock ticking out the minutes. Then Judge Ostrander rose and in a peremptory tone said:
"To-morrow. After you hear from me again. Make no move to-night. Let me feel that all your energies are devoted to securing my privacy."
The sergeant, who had sprung to his feet at the same instant as the judge, cast a last look about him, curiosity burning in his heart and a sort of desperate desire to get all he could out of his present opportunity. For he felt absolutely sure that he would never be allowed to enter this room again.
But the arrangement of light was such as to hold in shadow all but the central portion of the room; and this central portion held nothing out of the common--nothing to explain the mysteries of the dwelling or the apprehensions of its suspicious owner. With a sigh, the sergeant dropped his eyes from the walls he could barely distinguish, and following Judge Ostrander's lead, passed with him under the torn folds of the curtain and through the narrow vestibule whose door was made of iron, into the room, where, in a stronger blaze of light than they had left, lay the body of the dead negro awaiting the last rites.
Would the judge pass this body, or turn away from it towards a door leading front? The sergeant had come in at the rear, but he greatly desired to go out front, as this would give him so much additional knowledge of the house. Unexpectedly to himself, the judge's intentions were in the direction of his own wishes. He was led front; and, entering an old-fashioned hall dimly lighted, passed a staircase and two closed doors, both of which gave him the impression of having been shut upon a past it had pleasured no one to revive in many years.
Beyond them was the great front door of Colonial style and workmanship, a fine specimen once, but greatly disfigured now by the bolts and bars which had been added to it in satisfaction of the judge's ideas of security.
Many years had passed since Judge Ostrander had played the host; but he had not lost a sense of its obligations. It was for him to shoot the bolts and lift the bars; but he went about it so clumsily and with such evident aversion to the task, that the sergeant instinctively sprang to help him.
"I shall miss Bela at every turn," remarked the judge, turning with a sad smile as he finally pulled the door open. "This is an unaccustomed effort for me. Excuse my awkwardness."
Something in his attitude, something in the way he lifted his hand to push back a fallen lock from his forehead, impressed itself upon the sergeant's mind so vividly that he always remembered the judge as he appeared to him at that minute. Certainly there were but few men like him in the country, and none in his own town. Of a commanding personality by reason of his height, his features were of a cast to express his mental attributes and enforce attention, and the incongruity between his dominating figure and the apprehensions which he displayed in these multiplied and extraordinary arrangements for personal security was forcible enough to arouse any man's interest.
The sergeant was so occupied by the mystery of the man and the mystery of the house that they had passed the first gate (which the judge had unlocked without much difficulty) before he realised that there still remained something of interest for him to see and to talk about later. The two dark openings on either side, raised questions which the most unimaginative mind would feel glad to hear explained. Ere the second gate swung open and he found himself again in the street, he had built up more than one theory in explanation of this freak of parallel fences with the strip of gloom between.
Would he have felt the suggestion of the spot still more deeply, had it been given him to see the anxious and hesitating figure which, immediately upon his departure entered this dark maze, and with feeling hands and cautious step, wound its way from corner to corner--now stopping abruptly to listen, now shrinking from some imaginary presence--a shadow among shadows--till it stood again between the gates from which it had started.
Possibly; even the hardiest of men respond to the unusual, and prove themselves not ungifted with imagination when brought face to face with that for which their experience furnishes no precedent.