The Woman in the Alcove by Anna Katharine Green
XVIII. The Closed Door
The road was once the highway, but the tide having played so many tricks with its numberless bridges a new one had been built farther up the cliff, carrying with it the life and business of the small town. Many old landmarks still remained--shops, warehouses and even a few scattered dwellings. But most of these were deserted, and those that were still in use showed such neglect that it was very evident the whole region would soon be given up to the encroaching sea and such interests as are inseparable from it.
The hour was that mysterious one of late twilight, when outlines lose their distinctness and sea and shore melt into one mass of uniform gray. There was no wind and the waves came in with a soft plash, but so near to the level of the road that it was evident, even to these strangers, that the tide was at its height and would presently begin to ebb.
Soon they had passed the last forsaken dwelling, and the town proper lay behind them. Sand and a few rocks were all that lay between them now and the open stretch of the ocean, which, at this point, approached the land in a small bay, well-guarded on either side by embracing rocky heads. This was what made the harbor at C--.
It was very still. They passed one team and only one. Sweetwater looked very sharply at this team and at its driver, but saw nothing to arouse suspicion. They were now a half-mile from C--, and, seemingly, in a perfectly desolate region.
"A manufactory here!" exclaimed Mr. Grey. It was the first word he had uttered since starting.
"Not far from here," was Sweetwater's equally laconic reply; and, the road taking a turn almost at the moment of his speaking, he leaned forward and pointed out a building standing on the right-hand side of the road, with its feet in the water. "That's it." said he. "They described it well enough for me to know it when I see it. Looks like a robber's hole at this time of night," he laughed; "but what can you expect from a manufactory of patent medicine?"
Mr. Grey was silent. He was looking very earnestly at the building.
"It is larger than I expected," he remarked at last.
Sweetwater himself was surprised, but as they advanced and their point of view changed they found it to be really an insignificant structure, and Mr. Wellgood's portion of it more insignificant still.
In reality it was a collection of three stores under one roof: two of them were shut up and evidently unoccupied, the third showed a lighted window. This was the manufactory. It occupied the middle place and presented a tolerably decent appearance. It showed, besides the lighted lamp I have mentioned, such signs of life as a few packing-boxes tumbled out on the small platform in front, and a whinnying horse attached to an empty buggy, tied to a post on the opposite side of the road.
"I'm glad to see the lamp," muttered Sweetwater. "Now, what shall we do? Is it light enough for you to see his face, if I can manage to bring him to the door?"
Mr. Grey seemed startled.
"It's darker than I thought," said he. "But call the man and if I can not see him plainly, I'll shout to the horse to stand, which you will take as a signal to bring this Wellgood nearer. But do not be surprised if I ride off before he reaches the buggy. I'll come back again and take you up farther down the road."
"All right, sir," answered Sweetwater, with a side glance at the speaker's inscrutable features. "It's a go!" And leaping to the ground he advanced to the manufactory door and knocked loudly.
No one appeared.
He tried the latch; it lifted, but the door did not open; it was fastened from within.
"Strange!" he muttered, casting a glance at the waiting horse and buggy, then at the lighted window, which was on the second floor directly over his head. "Guess I'll sing out."
Here he shouted the man's name. "Wellgood! I say, Wellgood!"
No response to this either.
"Looks bad!" he acknowledged to himself; and, taking a step back, he looked up at the window.
It was closed, but there was neither shade nor curtain to obstruct the view.
"Do you see anything?" he inquired of Mr. Grey, who sat with his eye at the small window in the buggy top.
"No movement in the room above? No shadow at the window?"
"Well, it's confounded strange!" And he went back, still calling Wellgood.
The tied-up horse whinnied, and the waves gave a soft splash and that was all,--if I except Sweetwater's muttered oath.
Coming back, he looked again at the window, then, with a gesture toward Mr. Grey, turned the corner of the building and began to edge himself along its side in an endeavor to reach the rear and see what it offered. But he came to a sudden standstill. He found himself on the edge of the bank before he had taken twenty steps. Yet the building projected on, and he saw why it had looked so large from a certain point of the approach. Its rear was built out on piles, making its depth even greater than the united width of the three stores. At low tide this might be accessible from below, but just now the water was almost on a level with the top of the piles, making all approach impossible save by boat.
Disgusted with his failure, Sweetwater returned to the front, and, finding the situation unchanged, took a new resolve. After measuring with his eye the height of the first story, he coolly walked over to the strange horse, and, slipping his bridle, brought it back and cast it over a projection of the door; by its aid he succeeded in climbing up to the window, which was the sole eye to the interior,
Mr. Grey sat far back in his buggy, watching every movement.
There were no shades at the window, as I have before said, and, once Sweetwater's eye had reached the level of the sill, he could see the interior without the least difficulty. There was nobody there. The lamp burned on a great table littered with papers, but the rude cane-chair before it was empty, and so was the room. He could see into every corner of it and there was not even a hiding-place where anybody could remain concealed. Sweetwater was still looking, when the lamp, which had been burning with considerable smoke, flared up and went out. Sweetwater uttered an ejaculation, and, finding himself face to face with utter darkness, slid from his perch to the ground.
Approaching Mr. Grey for the second time, he said:
"I can not understand it. The fellow is either lying low, or he's gone out, leaving his lamp to go out, too. But whose is the horse--just excuse me while I tie him up again. It looks like the one he was driving to-day. It is the one. Well, he won't leave him here all night. Shall we lie low and wait for him to come and unhitch this animal? Or do you prefer to return to the hotel?"
Mr. Grey was slow in answering. Finally he said:
"The man may suspect our intention. You can never tell anything about such fellows as he. He may have caught some unexpected glimpse of me or simply heard that I was in town. If he's the man I think him, he has reasons for avoiding me which I can very well understand. Let us go back,--not to the hotel, I must see this adventure through tonight,--but far enough for him to think we have given up all idea of routing him out to-night. Perhaps that is all he is waiting for. You can steal back--"
"Excuse me," said Sweetwater, "but I know a better dodge than that. We'll circumvent him. We passed a boat-house on our way down here. I'll just drive you up, procure a boat, and bring you back here by water. I don't believe that he will expect that, and if he is in the house we shall see him or his light."
"Meanwhile he can escape by the road."
"Escape? Do you think he is planning to escape?"
The detective spoke with becoming surprise and Mr. Grey answered without apparent suspicion.
"It is possible if he suspects my presence in the neighborhood."
"Do you want to stop him?"
"I want to see him."
"Oh, I remember. Well, sir, we will drive on,--that is, after a moment."
"What are you going to do?"
"Oh, nothing. You said you wanted to see the man before he escaped."
"And that he might escape by the road."
"Well, I was just making that a little bit impracticable. A small pebble in the keyhole and--why, see now, his horse is walking off! Gee! I must have fastened him badly. I shouldn't wonder if he trotted all the way to town. But it can't be helped. I can not be supposed to race after him. Are you ready now, sir? I'll give another shout, then I'll get in." And once more the lonely region about echoed with the cry: "Wellgood! I say, Wellgood!"
There was no answer, and the young detective, masking for the nonce as Mr. Grey's confidential servant, jumped into the buggy, and turned the horse's head toward C--.