Read BOOK IV - THE BIRDS OF THE AIR of Lost Man Lane A Second Episode in the Life of Amelia Butterworth, free online book, by Anna Katharine Green, on ReadCentral.com.

CHAPTER I - LUCETTA

The next morning I rose with the lark.  I had slept well, and all my old vigor had returned.  A new problem was before me; a problem of surpassing interest, now that the Knollys family had been eliminated from the list of persons regarded with suspicion by the police.  Mother Jane and the jewels were to be Mr. Gryce’s starting-point for future investigation.  Should they be mine?  My decision on this point halted, and thinking it might be helped by a breath of fresh air, I decided upon an early stroll as a means of settling this momentous question.

There was silence in the house when I passed through it on my way to the front door.  But that silence had lost its terrors and the old house its absorbing mystery.  Yet it was not robbed of its interest.  When I realized that Althea Knollys, the Althea of my youth, had just died within its walls as ignorant of my proximity as I of hers, I felt that no old-time romance, nor any terror brought by flitting ghost or stalking apparition, could compare with the wonder of this return and the strange and thrilling circumstances which had attended it.  And the end was not yet.  Peaceful as everything now looked, I still felt that the end had not come.

The fact that Saracen was loose in the yard gave me some slight concern as I opened the great front door and looked out.  But the control under which I had held him the day before encouraged me in my venture, and after a few words with Hannah, who was careful not to let me slip away unnoticed, I boldly stepped forth and took my solitary way down to the gate.

It was not yet eight, and the grass was still heavy with dew.  At the gate I paused.  I wished to go farther, but Mr. Gryce’s injunction had been imperative about venturing into the lane alone.  Besides ­No, that was not a horse’s hoof.  There could be no one on the road so early as this.  I was alarming myself unnecessarily, yet ­Well, I held my place, a little awkwardly, perhaps.  Self-consciousness is always awkward, and I could not help being a trifle self-conscious at a meeting so unexpected and ­But the more I attempt to explain, the more confused my expressions become, so I will just say that, by this very strange chance, I was leaning over the gate when Mr. Trohm rode up for the second time and found me there.

I did not attempt any excuses.  He is gentleman enough to understand that a woman of my temperament rises early and must have the morning air.  That he should feel the same necessity is a coincidence, natural perhaps, but still a coincidence.  So there was nothing to be said about it.

But had there been, I would not have spoken, for he seemed so gratified at finding me enjoying nature at this early hour that any words from me would have been quite superfluous.  He did not dismount ­that would have shown intention ­but he stopped, and ­well, we have both passed the age of romance, and what he said cannot be of interest to the general public, especially as it did not deal with the disappearances or with the discoveries made in the Knollys house the day before, or with any of those questions which have absorbed our attention up to this time.

That we were engaged more than five minutes in this conversation I cannot believe.  I have always been extremely accurate in regard to time, yet a good half-hour was lost by me that morning for which I have never been able to account.  Perhaps it was spent in the short discussion which terminated our interview; a discussion which may be of interest to you, for it was upon the action of the police.

“Nothing came of the investigations made by Mr. Gryce yesterday, I perceive,” Mr. Trohm had remarked, with some reluctance, as he gathered up his reins to depart.  “Well, that is not strange.  How could he have hoped to find any clue to such a mystery as he is engaged to unearth, in a house presided over by Miss Knollys?”

“How could he, indeed!  Yet,” I added, determined to allay this man’s suspicions, which, notwithstanding the openness of his remark, were still observable in his tones, “you say that with an air I should hardly expect from so good a neighbor and friend.  Why is this, Mr. Trohm?  Surely you do not associate crime with the Misses Knollys?”

“Crime?  Oh, no, certainly not.  No one could associate crime with the Misses Knollys.  If my tone was at fault, it was due perhaps to my embarrassment ­this meeting, your kindness, the beauty of the day, and the feeling these all call forth.  Well, I may be pardoned if my tones are not quite true in discussing other topics.  My thoughts were with the one I addressed.”

“Then that tone of doubt was all the more misplaced,” I retorted.  “I am so frank, I cannot bear innuendo in others.  Besides, Mr. Trohm, the worst folly of this home was laid bare yesterday in a way to set at rest all darker suspicions.  You knew that William indulged in vivisection.  Well, that is bad, but it cannot be called criminal.  Let us do him justice, then, and, for his sisters’ sake, see how we can re-establish him in the good graces of the community.”

But Mr. Trohm, who for all our short acquaintance was not without a very decided appreciation for certain points in my character, shook his head and with a smiling air returned: 

“You are asking the impossible not only of the community, but yourself.  William can never re-establish himself.  He is of too rude a make.  The girls may recover the esteem they seem to have lost, but William ­Why, if the cause of those disappearances was found to-day, and found at the remotest end of this road or even up in the mountains, where no one seems to have looked for it, William would still be known throughout the county as a rough and cruel man.  I have tried to stand his friend, but it’s been against odds, Miss Butterworth.  Even his sisters recognize this, and show their lack of confidence in our friendship.  But I would like to oblige you.”

I knew he ought to go.  I knew that if he had simply lingered the five minutes which common courtesy allowed, that curious eyes would be looking from Loreen’s window, and that at any minute I might expect some interference from Lucetta, who had read through this man’s forbearance toward William the very natural distrust he could not but feel toward so uncertain a character.  Yet with such an opportunity at my command, how could I let him go without another question?

“Mr. Trohm,” said I, “you have the kindest heart and the closest lips, but have you ever thought that Deacon Spear ­”

He stopped me with a really horrified look.  “Deacon Spear’s house was thoroughly examined yesterday,” said he, “as mine will be to-day.  Don’t insinuate anything against him!  Leave that for foolish William.”  Then with the most charming return to his old manner, for I felt myself in a measure rebuked, he lifted his hat and urged his horse forward.  But, having withdrawn himself a step or two, he paused and with the slightest gesture toward the little hut he was facing, added in a much lower tone than any he had yet used:  “Besides, Deacon Spear is much too far away from Mother Jane’s cottage.  Don’t you remember that I told you she never could be got to go more than forty rods from her own doorstep?” And, breaking into a quick canter, he rode away.

I was left to think over his words and the impossibility of my picking up any other clue than that given me by Mr. Gryce.

I was turning toward the house when I heard a slight noise at my feet.  Looking down, I encountered the eyes of Saracen.  He was crouching at my side, and as I turned toward him, his tail actually wagged.  It was a sight to call the color up to my cheek; not that I blushed at this sign of good-will, astonishing as it was, considering my feeling toward dogs, but at his being there at all without my knowing it.  So palpable a proof that no woman ­I make no exceptions ­can listen more than one minute to the expressions of a man’s sincere admiration without losing a little of her watchfulness, was not to be disregarded by one as inexorable to her own mistakes as to those of others.  I saw myself the victim of vanity, and while somewhat abashed by the discovery, I could not but realize that this solitary proof of feminine weakness was not really to be deplored in one who has not yet passed the line beyond which any such display is ridiculous.

Lucetta met me at the door just as I had expected her to.  Giving me a short look, she spoke eagerly but with a latent anxiety, for which I was more or less prepared.

“I am glad to see you looking so bright this morning,” she declared.  “We are all feeling better now that the incubus of secrecy is removed.  But” ­here she hesitated ­“I would not like to think you told Mr. Trohm what happened to us yesterday.”

“Lucetta,” said I, “there may be women of my age who delight in gossiping about family affairs with comparative strangers, but I am not that kind of woman.  Mr. Trohm, friendly as he has proved himself and worthy as he undoubtedly is of your confidence and trust, will have to learn from some other person than myself anything which you may wish to have withheld from him.”

For reply she gave me an impulsive kiss.  “I thought I could trust you,” she cried.  Then, with a dubious look, half daring, half shrinking, she added: 

“When you come to know and like us better, you will not care so much to talk to neighbors.  They never can understand us or do us justice, Mr. Trohm, especially.”

This was a remark I could not let pass.

“Why?” I demanded.  “Why do you think Mr. Trohm cherishes such animosity towards you?  Has he ever ­”

But Lucetta could exercise a repellent dignity when she chose.  I did not finish my sentence, though I must have looked the inquiry I thought better not to put into words.

“Mr. Trohm is a man of blameless reputation,” she avowed.  “If he has allowed himself to cherish suspicions in our regard, he has doubtless had his reasons for it.”

And with these quiet words she left me to my thoughts, and I must say to my doubts, which were all the more painful that I saw no immediate opportunity for clearing them up.

Late in the afternoon William burst in with news from the other end of the lane.

“Such a lark!” he cried.  “The investigation at Deacon Spear’s house was a mere farce, and I just made them repeat it with a few frills.  They had dug up my cellar, and I was determined they should dig up his.  Oh, the fun it was!  The old fellow kicked, but I had my way.  They couldn’t refuse me, you know; I hadn’t refused them.  So that man’s cellar-bottom has had a stir up.  They didn’t find anything, but it did me a lot of good, and that’s something.  I do hate Deacon Spear ­couldn’t hate him worse if he’d killed and buried ten men under his hearthstone.”

“There is no harm in Deacon Spear,” said Lucetta, quickly.

“Did they submit Mr. Trohm’s house to a search also?” asked Loreen, ashamed of William’s heat and anxious to avert any further display of it.

“Yes, they went through that too.  I was with them.  Glad I was too.  I say, girls, I could have laughed to see all the comforts that old bachelor has about him.  Never saw such fixings.  Why, that house is as neat and pretty from top to bottom as any old maid’s.  It’s silly, of course, for a man, and I’d rather live in an old rookery like this, where I can walk from room to room in muddy boots if I want to, and train my dogs and live in freedom like the man I am.  Yet I couldn’t help thinking it mighty comfortable, too, for an old fellow like him who likes such things and don’t have chick or child to meddle.  Why, he had pincushions on all his bureaus, and they had pins in them.”

The laugh with which he delivered this last sentence might have been heard a quarter of a mile away.  Lucetta looked at Loreen and Loreen looked at me, but none of us joined in the mirth, which seemed to me very ill-timed.

Suddenly Lucetta asked: 

“Did they dig up Mr. Trohm’s cellar?”

William stopped laughing long enough to say: 

“His cellar?  Why, it’s cemented as hard as an oak floor.  No, they didn’t polish their spades in his house, which was another source of satisfaction to me.  Deacon Spear hasn’t even that to comfort him.  Oh, how I did enjoy that old fellow’s face when they began to root up his old fungi!”

Lucetta turned away with a certain odd constraint I could not but notice.

“It’s a humiliating day for the lane,” said she.  “And what is worse,” she suddenly added, “nothing will ever come of it.  It will take more than a band of police to reach the root of this matter.”

I thought her manner odd, and, moving towards her, took her by the hand with something of a relative’s familiarity.

“What makes you say that?  Mr. Gryce seems a very capable man.”

“Yes, yes, but capability has nothing to do with it.  Chance might and pluck might, but wit and experience not.  Otherwise the mystery would have been settled long ago.  I wish I ­”

“Well?” Her hand was trembling violently.

“Nothing.  I don’t know why I have allowed myself to talk on this subject.  Loreen and I once made a compact never to give any opinion upon it.  You see how I have kept it.”

She had drawn her hand away and suddenly had become quite composed.  I turned my attention toward Loreen, but she was looking out of the window and showed no intention of further pursuing the conversation.  William had strolled out.

“Well,” said I, “if ever a girl had reason for breaking such a compact you are certainly that girl.  I could never have been as silent as you have been ­that is, if I had any suspicions on so serious a subject.  Why, your own good name is impugned ­yours and that of every other person living in this lane.”

“Miss Butterworth,” she replied, “I have gone too far.  Besides, you have misunderstood me.  I have no more knowledge than anybody else as to the source of these terrible tragedies.  I only know that an almost superhuman cunning lies at the bottom of so many unaccountable disappearances, a cunning so great that only a crazy person ­”

“Ah,” I murmured eagerly, “Mother Jane!”

She did not answer.  Instantly I took a resolution.

“Lucetta,” said I, “is Deacon Spear a rich man?”

Starting violently, she looked at me amazed.

“If he is, I should like to hazard the guess that he is the man who has held you in such thraldom for years.”

“And if he were?” said she.

“I could understand William’s antipathy to him and also his suspicions.”

She gave me a strange look, then without answering walked over and took Loreen by the hand.  “Hush!” I thought I heard her whisper.  At all events the two sisters were silent for more than a moment.  Then Lucetta said: 

“Deacon Spear is well off, but nothing will ever make me accuse living man of crime so dreadful.”  And she walked away, drawing Loreen after her.  In another moment she was out of the room, leaving me in a state of great excitement.

“This girl holds the secret to the whole situation,” I inwardly decided.  “The belief that nothing more can be learned from her is a false one.  I must see Mr. Gryce.  William’s rodomontades are so much empty air, but Lucetta’s silence has a meaning we cannot afford to ignore.”

So impressed was I by this, that I took the first opportunity which presented itself of seeing the detective.  This was early the next morning.  He and several of the townspeople had made their appearance at Mother Jane’s cottage, with spades and picks, and the sight had naturally drawn us all down to the gate, where we stood watching operations in a silence which would have been considered unnatural by any one who did not realize the conflicting nature of the emotions underlying it.  William, to whom the death of his mother seemed to be a great deliverance, had been inclined to be more or less jocular, but his sallies meeting with no response, he had sauntered away to have it out with his dogs, leaving me alone with the two girls and Hannah.

The latter seemed to be absorbed entirely by the aspect of Mother Jane, who stood upon her doorstep in an attitude so menacing that it was little short of tragic.  Her hood, for the first time in the memory of those present, had fallen away from her head, revealing a wealth of gray hair which flew away from her head like a weird halo.  Her features we could not distinguish, but the emotion which inspired her, breathed in every gesture of her uplifted arms and swaying body.  It was wrath personified, and yet an unreasoning wrath.  One could see she was as much dazed as outraged.  Her lares and penates were being attacked, and she had come from the heart of her solitude to defend them.

“I declare!” Hannah protested.  “It is pitiful.  She has nothing in the world but that garden, and now they are going to root that up.”

“Do you think that the sight of a little money would appease her?” I inquired, anxious for an excuse to drop a word into the ear of Mr. Gryce.

“Perhaps,” said Hannah.  “She dearly loves money, but it will not take away her fright.”

“It will if she has nothing to be frightened about,” said I; and turning to the girls, I asked them, somewhat mincingly for me, if they thought I would make myself conspicuous if I crossed the road on this errand, and when Loreen answered that that would not deter her if she had the money, and Lucetta added that the sight of such misery was too painful for any mere personal consideration, I took advantage of their complaisance, and hastily made my way over to the group, who were debating as to the point they would attack first.

“Gentlemen,” said I, “good-morning.  I am here on an errand of mercy.  Poor old Mother Jane is half imbecile and does not understand why you invade her premises with these implements.  Will you object if I endeavor to distract her mind with a little piece of gold I happen to have in my pocket?  She may not deserve it, but it will make your task easier and save us some possible concern.”

Half of the men at once took off their hats.  The other half nudged each other’s elbows, and whispered and grimaced like the fools they were.  The first half were gentlemen, though not all of them wore gentlemen’s clothes.

It was Mr. Gryce who spoke: 

“Certainly, madam.  Give the old woman anything you please, but ­” And here he stepped up to me and began to whisper; “You have something to say.  What is it?”

I answered in the same quick way:  “The mine you thought exhausted has possibilities in it yet.  Question Lucetta.  It may prove a more fruitful task than turning up this soil.”

The bow he made was more for the onlookers than for the suggestion I had given him.  Yet he was not ungrateful for the latter, as I, who was beginning to understand him, could see.

“Be as generous as you please!” he cried aloud.  “We would not disturb the old crone if it were not for one of her well-known follies.  Nothing will take her over forty rods away from her home.  Now what lies within those forty rods?  These men think we ought to see.”

The shrug I gave answered both the apparent and the concealed question.  Satisfied that he would understand it so, I hurried away from him and approached Mother Jane.

“See!” said I, astonished at the regularity of her features, now that I had a good opportunity of observing them.  “I have brought you money.  Let them dig up your turnips if they will.”

She did not seem to perceive me.  Her eyes were wild with dismay and her lips trembling with a passion far beyond my power to comfort.

“Lizzie!” she cried.  “Lizzie!  She will come back and find no home.  Oh, my poor girl!  My poor, poor girl!”

It was pitiable.  I could not doubt her anguish or her sincerity.  The delirium of a broken heart cannot be simulated.  And this heart was not controlled by reason; that was equally apparent.  Immediately my heart, which goes out slowly, but none the less truly on that account, was touched by something more than the surface sympathy of the moment.  She may have stolen, she may have done worse, she may even have been at the bottom of the horrible crimes which have given its name to the lane we were in, but her acts, if acts they were, were the result of a clouded mind fixed forever upon the fancied needs of another, and not the expression of personal turpitude or even of personal longing or avarice.  Therefore I could pity her, and I did.

Making another appeal, I pressed the coin hard into one of her hands till the contact effected what my words had been unable to do, and she finally looked down and saw what she was clutching.  Then indeed her aspect changed, and in a few minutes of slowly growing comprehension she became so quiet and absorbed that she forgot to look at the men and even forgot me, who was probably nothing more than a flitting shadow to her.

“A silk gown,” she murmured.  “It will buy Lizzie a silk gown.  Oh! where did it come from, the good, good gold, the beautiful gold; such a little piece, yet enough to make her look fine, my Lizzie, my pretty, pretty Lizzie?”

No numbers this time.  The gift was too overpowering for her even to remember that it must be hidden away.

I walked away while her delight was still voluble.  Somehow it eased my mind to have done her this little act of kindness, and I think it eased the minds of the men too.  At all events, every hat was off when I repassed them on my way back to the Knollys gateway.

I had left both the girls there, but I found only one awaiting me.  Lucetta had gone in, and so had Hannah.  On what errand I was soon to know.

“What do you suppose that detective wants of Lucetta now?” asked Loreen as I took my station again at her side.  “While you were talking to Mother Jane he stepped over here, and with a word or two induced Lucetta to walk away with him toward the house.  See, there they are in those thick shrubs near the right wing.  He seems to be pleading with her.  Do you think I ought to join them and find out what he is urging upon her so earnestly?  I don’t like to seem intrusive, but Lucetta is easily agitated, you know, and his business cannot be of an indifferent nature after all he has discovered concerning our affairs.”

“No,” I agreed, “and yet I think Lucetta will be strong enough to sustain the conversation, judging from the very erect attitude she is holding now.  Perhaps he thinks she can tell him where to dig.  They seem a little at sea over there, and living, as you do, a few rods from Mother Jane, he may imagine that Lucetta can direct him where to first plant the spade.”

“It’s an insult,” Loreen protested.  “All these talks and visits are insults.  To be sure, this detective has some excuse, but ­”

“Keep your eye on Lucetta,” I interrupted.  “She is shaking her head and looking very positive.  She will prove to him it is an insult.  We need not interfere, I think.”

But Loreen had grown pensive and did not heed my suggestion.  A look that was almost wistful had supplanted the expression of indignant revolt with which she had addressed me, and when next moment the two we had been watching turned and came slowly toward us, it was with decided energy she bounded forward and joined them.

“What is the matter now?” she asked.  “What does Mr. Gryce want, Lucetta?”

Mr. Gryce himself spoke.

“I simply want her,” said he, “to assist me with a clue from her inmost thoughts.  When I was in your house,” he explained with a praiseworthy consideration for me and my relations to these girls for which I cannot be too grateful, “I saw in this young lady something which convinced me that, as a dweller in this lane, she was not without her suspicions as to the secret cause of the fatal mysteries which I have been sent here to clear up.  To-day I have frankly accused her of this, and asked her to confide in me.  But she refuses to do so, Miss Loreen.  Yet her face shows even at this moment that my old eyes were not at fault in my reading of her.  She does suspect somebody, and it is not Mother Jane.”

“How can you say that?” began Lucetta, but the eyes which Loreen that moment turned upon her seemed to trouble her, for she did not attempt to say any more ­only looked equally obstinate and distressed.

“If Lucetta suspects any one,” Loreen now steadily remarked, “then I think she ought to tell you who it is.”

“You do.  Then perhaps you ­” commenced Mr. Gryce ­“can persuade her as to her duty,” he finished, as he saw her head rise in protest of what he evidently had intended to demand.

“Lucetta will not yield to persuasion,” was her quiet reply.  “Nothing short of conviction will move the sweetest-natured but the most determined of all my mother’s children.  What she thinks is right, she will do.  I will not attempt to influence her.”

Mr. Gryce, with one comprehensive survey of the two, hesitated no longer.  I saw the rising of the blood into his forehead, which always precedes the beginning of one of his great moves, and, filled with a sudden excitement, I awaited his next words as a tyro awaits the first unfolding of the plan he has seen working in the brain of some famous strategist.

“Miss Lucetta,” ­his very tone was changed, changed in a way to make us all start notwithstanding the preparation his momentary silence had given us ­“I have been thus pressing and perhaps rude in my appeal, because of something which has come to my knowledge which cannot but make you of all persons extremely anxious as to the meaning of this terrible mystery.  I am an old man, and you will not mind my bluntness.  I have been told ­and your agitation convinces me there is truth in the report ­that you have a lover, a Mr. Ostrander ­”

“Ah!” She had sunk as if crushed by one overwhelming blow to the earth.  The eyes, the lips, the whole pitiful face that was upturned to us, remain in my memory to-day as the most terrible and yet the most moving spectacle that has come into my by no means uneventful life.  “What has happened to him?  Quick, quick, tell me!”

For answer Mr. Gryce drew out a telegram.

“From the master of the ship on which he was to sail,” he explained.  “It asks if Mr. Ostrander left this town on Tuesday last, as no news has been received of him.”

“Loreen!  Loreen!  When he left us he passed down that way!” shrieked the girl, rising like a spirit and pointing east toward Deacon Spear’s.  “He is gone!  He is lost!  But his fate shall not remain a mystery.  I will dare its solution.  I ­I ­To-night you will hear from me again.”

And without another glance at any of us she turned and fled toward the house.

CHAPTER II - CONDITIONS

But in another moment she was back, her eyes dilated and her whole person exhaling a terrible purpose.

“Do not look at me, do not notice me!” she cried, but in a voice so hoarse no one but Mr. Gryce could fully understand her.  “I am for no one’s eyes but God’s.  Pray that he may have mercy upon me.”  Then as she saw us all instinctively fall back, she controlled herself, and, pointing toward Mother Jane’s cottage, said more distinctly:  “As for those men, let them dig.  Let them dig the whole day long.  Secrecy must be kept, a secrecy so absolute that not even the birds of the air must see that our thoughts range beyond the forty rods surrounding Mother Jane’s cottage.”

She turned and would have fled away for the second time, but Mr. Gryce stopped her.  “You have set yourself a task beyond your strength.  Can you perform it?”

“I can perform it,” she said.  “If Loreen does not talk, and I am allowed to spend the day in solitude.”

I had never seen Mr. Gryce so agitated ­no, not when he left Olive Randolph’s bedside after an hour of vain pleading.  “But to wait all day!  Is it necessary for you to wait all day?”

“It is necessary.”  She spoke like an automaton.  “To-night at twilight, when the sun is setting, meet me at the great tree just where the road turns.  Not a minute sooner, not an hour later.  I will be calmer then.”  And waiting now for nothing, not for a word from Loreen nor a detaining touch from Mr. Gryce, she flew away for the second time.  This time Loreen followed her.

“Well, that is the hardest thing I ever had to do,” said Mr. Gryce, wiping his forehead and speaking in a tone of real grief and anxiety.  “Do you think her delicate frame can stand it?  Will she survive this day and carry through whatever it is she has set herself to accomplish?”

“She has no organic disease,” said I, “but she loved that young man very much, and the day will be a terrible one to her.”

Mr. Gryce sighed.

“I wish I had not been obliged to resort to such means,” said he, “but women like that only work under excitement, and she does know the secret of this affair.”

“Do you mean,” I demanded, almost aghast, “that you have deceived her with a false telegram; that that slip of paper you hold ­”

“Read it,” he cried, holding it out toward me.

I did read it.  Alas, there was no deception in it.  It read as he said.

“However ­” I began.

But he had pocketed the telegram and was several steps away before I had finished my sentence.

“I am going to start these men up,” said he.  “You will breathe no word to Miss Lucetta of my sympathy nor let your own interests slack in the investigations which are going on under our noses.”

And with a quick, sharp bow, he made his way to the gate, whither I followed him in time to see him set his foot upon a patch of sage.

“You will begin at this place,” he cried, “and work east; and, gentlemen, something tells me that we shall be successful.”

With almost a simultaneous sound a dozen spades and picks struck the ground.  The digging up of Mother Jane’s garden had begun in earnest.

CHAPTER III - THE DOVE

I remained at the gate.  I had been bidden to show my interest in what was going on in Mother Jane’s garden, and this was the way I did it.  But my thoughts were not with the diggers.  I knew, as well then as later, that they would find nothing worth the trouble they were taking; and, having made up my mind to this, I was free to follow the lead of my own thoughts.

They were not happy ones; I was neither satisfied with myself nor with the prospect of the long day of cruel suspense that awaited us.  When I undertook to come to X., it was with the latent expectation of making myself useful in ferreting out its mystery.  And how had I succeeded?  I had been the means through which one of its secrets had been discovered, but not the secret; and while Mr. Gryce was good enough, or wise enough, to show no diminution in his respect for me, I knew that I had sunk a peg in his estimation from the consciousness I had of having sunk two, if not three pegs, in my own.

This was a galling thought to me.  But it was not the only one which disturbed me.  Happily or unhappily, I have as much heart as pride, and Lucetta’s despair, and the desperate resolve to which it had led, had made an impression upon me which I could not shake off.

Whether she knew the criminal or only suspected him; whether in the heat of her sudden anguish she had promised more or less than she could perform, the fact remained that we (by whom I mean first and above all, Mr. Gryce, the ablest detective on the New York force, and myself, who, if no detective, am at least a factor of more or less importance in an inquiry like this) were awaiting the action of a weak and suffering girl to discover what our own experience should be able to obtain for us unassisted.

That Mr. Gryce felt that he was playing a great card in thus enlisting her despair in our service, did not comfort me.  I am not fond of games in which real hearts take the place of painted ones; and, besides, I was not ready to acknowledge that my own capacity for ferreting out this mystery was quite exhausted, or that I ought to remain idle while Lucetta bent under a task so much beyond her strength.  So deeply was I impressed by this latter consideration, that I found myself, even in the midst of my apparent interest in what was going on at Mother Jane’s cottage, asking if I was bound to accept the defeat pronounced upon my efforts by Mr. Gryce, and if there was not yet time to retrieve myself and save Lucetta.  One happy thought, or clever linking of cause to effect, might lead me yet to the clue which we had hitherto sought in vain.  And then who would have more right to triumph than Amelia Butterworth, or who more reason to apologize than Ebenezar Gryce!  But where was I to get my happy thought, and by what stroke of fortune could I reasonably hope to light upon a clue which had escaped the penetrating eye of my quondam colleague?  Lucetta’s gesture and Lucetta’s exclamation, “He passed that way!” indicated that her suspicions pointed in the direction of Deacon Spear’s cottage; so did William’s wandering accusations:  but this was little help to me, confined as I was to the Knollys demesnes, both by Mr. Gryce’s command and by my own sense of propriety.  No, I must light on something more tangible; something practical enough to justify me in my own eyes for any interference I might meditate.  In short, I must start from a fact, and not from a suspicion.  But what fact?  Why, there was but one, and that was the finding of certain indisputable tokens of crime in Mother Jane’s keeping.  That was a clue, a clue, to be sure, which Mr. Gryce, while ostensibly following it in his present action, really felt to lead nowhere, but which I ­Here my thoughts paused.  I dare not promise myself too satisfactory results to my efforts, even while conscious of that vague elation which presages success, and which I could only overcome by resorting again to reasoning.  This time I started with a question.  Had Mother Jane committed these crimes herself?  I did not think so; neither did Mr. Gryce, for all the persistence he showed in having the ground about her humble dwelling-place turned over.  Then, how had the ring of Mr. Chittenden come to be in her possession, when, as all agreed, she never was known to wander more than forty rods away from home?  If the crime by which this young gentleman had perished had taken place up the road, as Lucetta’s denouncing finger plainly indicated, then this token of Mother Jane’s complicity in it had been carried across the intervening space by other means than Mother Jane herself.  In other words, it was brought to her by the perpetrator, or it was placed where she could lay hand on it; neither supposition implying guilt on her part, she being in all probability as innocent of wrong as she was of sense.  At all events, such should be my theory for the nonce, old theories having exploded or become of little avail in the present aspect of things.  To discover, then, the source of crime, I must discover the means by which this ring reached Mother Jane ­an almost hopeless task, but not to be despaired of on that account:  had I not wrung the truth in times gone by from that piece of obstinate stolidity the Van Burnam scrub-woman? and if I could do this, might I not hope to win an equal confidence from this half-demented creature, with a heart so passionate it beat to but one tune, her Lizzie?  I meant at least to try, and, under the impulse of this resolve, I left my position at the gate and recrossed the road to Mother Jane, whose figure I could dimly discern on the farther side of her little house.

Mr. Gryce barely looked up as I passed him, and the men not at all.  They were deep in their work, and probably did not see me.  Neither did Mother Jane at first.  She had not yet wearied of the shining gold she held, though she had begun again upon that chanting of numbers the secret of which Mr. Gryce had discovered in his investigation of her house.

I therefore found it hard to make her hear me when I attempted to speak.  She had fixed upon the new number fifteen and seemed never to tire of repeating it.  At last I took cue from her speech, and shouted out the word ten.  It was the number of the vegetable in which Mr. Chittenden’s ring had been hidden, and it made her start violently.

“Ten! ten!” I reiterated, catching her eye.  “He who brought it has carried it away; come into the house and look.”

It was a desperate attempt.  I felt myself quake inwardly as I realized how near Mr. Gryce was standing, and what his anger would be if he surprised me at this move after he had cried “Halt!”

But neither my own perturbation nor the thought of his possible anger could restrain the spirit of investigation which had returned to me with the above words; and when I saw that they had not fallen upon deaf ears, but that Mother Jane heard and in a measure understood them, I led the way into the hut and pointed to the string from which the one precious vegetable had been torn.

She gave a spring toward it that was well-nigh maniacal in its fury, and for an instant I thought she was going to rend the air with one of her wild yells, when there came a swishing of wings at one of the open windows, and a dove flew in and nestled in her breast, diverting her attention so, that she dropped the empty husk of the onion she had just grasped and seized the bird in its stead.  It was a violent clutch, so violent that the poor dove panted and struggled under it till its head flopped over and I looked to see it die in her hands.

“Stop!” I cried, horrified at a sight I was so unprepared to expect from one who was supposed to cherish these birds most tenderly.

But she heard me no more than she saw the gesture of indignant appeal I made her.  All her attention, as well as all her fury, was fixed upon the dove, over whose neck and under whose wings she ran her trembling fingers with the desperation of one looking for something he failed to find.

“Ten! ten!” it was now her turn to shout, as her eyes passed in angry menace from the bird to the empty husk that dangled over her head.  “You brought it, did you, and you’ve taken it, have you?  There, then!  You’ll never bring or carry any more!” And lifting up her hand, she flung the bird to the other side of the room, and would have turned upon me, in which contingency I would for once have met my match, if, in releasing the bird from her hands, she had not at the same time released the coin which she had hitherto managed to hold through all her passionate gestures.

The sight of this piece of gold, which she had evidently forgotten for the moment, turned her thoughts back to the joys it promised her.  Recapturing it once more, she sank again into her old ecstasy, upon which I proceeded to pick up the poor, senseless dove, and leave the hut with a devout feeling of gratitude for my undoubted escape.

That I did this quietly and with the dove hidden under my little cape, no one who knows me well will doubt.  I had brought something from the hut besides this victim of the old imbécile’s fury, and I was no more willing that Mr. Gryce should see the one than detect the other.  I had brought away a clue.

“The birds of the air shall carry it.”  So the Scripture runs.  This bird, this pigeon, who now lay panting out his life in my arms had brought her the ring which in Mr. Gryce’s eyes had seemed to connect her with the disappearance of young Mr. Chittenden.

CHAPTER IV - AN HOUR OF STARTLING EXPERIENCES

Not till I was safely back in the Knollys grounds, not, indeed, till I had put one or two large and healthy shrubs between me and a certain pair of very prying eyes, did I bring the dove out from under my cape and examine the poor bird for any sign which might be of help to me in the search to which I was newly committed.

But I found nothing, and was obliged to resort to my old plan of reasoning to make anything out of the situation in which I thus so unexpectedly found myself.  The dove had brought the ring into old Mother Jane’s hands, but whence and through whose agency?  This was as much a secret as before, but the longer I contemplated it, the more I realized that it need not remain a secret long; that we had simply to watch the other doves, note where they lighted, and in whose barn-doors they were welcome, for us to draw inferences that might lead to revelations before the day was out.  If Deacon Spear ­But Deacon Spear’s house had been examined as well as that of every other resident in the lane.  This I knew, but it had not been examined by me, and unwilling as I was to challenge the accuracy or thoroughness of a search led on by such a man as Mr. Gryce, I could not but feel that, with such a hint as I had received from the episode in the hut, it would be a great relief to my mind to submit these same premises to my own somewhat penetrating survey, no man in my judgment having the same quickness of eyesight in matters domestic as a woman trained to know every inch of a house and to measure by a hair’s-breadth every fall of drapery within it.

But how in the name of goodness was I to obtain an opportunity for this survey.  Had we not one and all been bidden to confine our attention to what was going on in Mother Jane’s cottage, and would it not be treason to Lucetta to run the least risk of awakening apprehension in any possibly guilty mind at the other end of the road?  Yes, but for all that I could not keep still if fate, or my own ingenuity, offered me the least chance of pursuing the clue I had wrung from our imbecile neighbor at the risk of my life.  It was not in my nature to do so, any more than it was in my nature to yield up my present advantage to Mr. Gryce without making a personal effort to utilize it.  I forgot that I failed in this once before in my career, or rather I recalled this failure, perhaps, and felt the great need of retrieving myself.

When, therefore, in my slow stroll towards the house I encountered William in the shrubbery, I could not forbear accosting him with a question or two.

“William,” I remarked, gently rubbing the side of my nose with an irresolute forefinger and looking at him from under my lids, “that was a scurvy trick you played Deacon Spear yesterday.”

He stood amazed, then burst into one of his loud laughs.

“You think so?” he cried.  “Well, I don’t.  He only got what he deserved, the hard, sanctimonious sneak!”

“Do you say that,” I inquired, with some spirit, “because you dislike the man, or because you really believe him to be worthy of hatred?”

William’s amusement at this argued little for my hopes.

We are very much interested in the Deacon,” he suggested, with a leer; which insolence I allowed to pass unnoticed, because it best suited my plan.

“You have not answered my question,” I remarked, with a forced air of anxiety.

“Oh, no,” he cried, “so I haven’t”; and he tried to look serious too.  “Well, well, to be just, I have nothing really against the man but his mean ways.  Still, if I were going to risk my life on a hazard as to who is the evil spirit of this lane, I should say Spear and done with it, he has such cursed small eyes.”

I don’t think his eyes are too small,” I returned loftily.  Then with a sudden change of manner, I suggested anxiously:  “And my opinion is shared by your sisters.  They evidently think very well of him.”

“Oh!” he sneered; “girls are no judges.  They don’t know a good man when they see him, and they don’t know a bad.  You mustn’t go by what they say.”

I had it on the tip of my tongue to ask if he did not think Lucetta sufficiently understood herself to be trusted in what she contemplated doing that night.  But this was neither in accordance with my plan, nor did it seem quite loyal to Lucetta, who, so far as I knew, had not communicated her intentions to this booby brother.  I therefore changed this question into a repetition of my first remark: 

“Well, I still think the trick you played Deacon Spear yesterday a poor one; and I advise you, as a gentleman, to go and ask his pardon.”

This was such a preposterous proposition, he could not hold his peace.

I ask his pardon!” he snorted.  “Well, Saracen, did you ever hear the like of that! I ask Deacon Spear’s pardon for obliging him to be treated with as great attention as I had been myself.”

“If you do not,” I went on, unmoved, “I shall go and do it myself.  I think that is what my friendship for you warrants.  I am determined that while I am a visitor in your house no one shall be able to pick a flaw in your conduct.”

He stared (as he might well do), tried to read my face, then my intentions, and failing to do both, which was not strange, broke into noisy mirth.

“Oh, ho!” he laughed.  “So that is your game, is it!  Well, I never!  Saracen, Miss Butterworth wants to reform me; wants to make one of her sleek city chaps out of William Knollys.  She’ll have hard work of it, won’t she?  But then we’re beginning to like her well enough to let her try.  Miss Butterworth, I’ll go with you to Deacon Spear.  I haven’t had so much chance for fun in a twelve-month.”

I had not expected such success, and was duly thankful.  But I made no reference to it aloud.  On the contrary, I took his complaisance as a matter of course, and, hiding all token of triumph, suggested quietly that we should make as little ado as possible over our errand, seeing that Mr. Gryce was something of a meddler and might take it into his head to interfere.  Which suggestion had all the effect I anticipated, for at the double prospect of amusing himself at the Deacon’s expense, and of outwitting the man whose business it was to outwit us, he became not only willing but eager to undertake the adventure offered him.  So with the understanding that I was to be ready to drive into town as soon as he could hitch up the horse, we parted on the most amicable terms, he proceeding towards the stable and I towards the house, where I hoped to learn something new about Lucetta.

But Loreen, from whom alone I could hope to glean any information, was shut in her room, and did not come out, though I called her more than once, which, if it left my curiosity unsatisfied, at least allowed me to quit the house without awakening hers.

William was waiting for me at the gate when I descended.  He was in the best of humors, and helped me into the buggy he had resurrected from some corner of the old stable, with a grimace of suppressed mirth which argued well for the peace of our proposed drive.  The horse’s head was turned away from the quarter we were bound for, but as we were ostensibly on our way to the village, this showed but common prudence on William’s part, and, as such, met with my entire approbation.

Mr. Gryce and his men were hard at work when we passed them.  Knowing the detective so well, and rating at its full value his undoubted talent for reading the motives of those about him, I made no attempt at cajolery in the explanation I proffered of our sudden departure, but merely said, in my old, peremptory way, that I found waiting at the gate so tedious that I had accepted William’s invitation to drive into town.  Which, while it astonished the old gentleman, did not really arouse his suspicions, as a more conciliatory manner and speech might have done.  This disposed of, we drove rapidly away.

William’s sense of humor once aroused was not easily allayed.  He seemed so pleased with his errand that he could talk of nothing else, and turned the subject over and over in his clumsy way, till I began to wonder if he had seen through the object of our proposed visit and was making me the butt of his none too brilliant wit.

But no, he was really amused at the part he was called upon to play, and, once convinced of this, I let his humor run on without check till we had re-entered Lost Man’s Lane from the other end and were in sight of the low sloping roof of Deacon Spear’s old-fashioned farmhouse.

Then I thought it time to speak.

“William,” said I, “Deacon Spear is too good a man, and, as I take it, is in possession of too great worldly advantages for you to be at enmity with him.  Remember that he is a neighbor, and that you are a landed proprietor in this lane.”

“Good for you!” was the elegant reply with which this young boor honored me.  “I didn’t think you had such an eye for the main chance.”

“Deacon Spear is rich, is he not?” I pursued, with an ulterior motive he was far from suspecting.

“Rich?  Why, I don’t know; that depends upon what you city ladies call rich; I shouldn’t call him so, but then, as you say, I am a landed proprietor myself.”

His laugh was boisterously loud, and as we were then nearly in front of the Deacon’s house, it rang in through the open windows, causing such surprise, that more than one head bobbed up from within to see who dared to laugh like that in Lost Man’s Lane.  While I noted these heads and various other small matters about the house and place, William tied up the horse and held out his hand for me to descend.

“I begin to suspect,” he whispered as he helped me out, “why you are so anxious to have me on good terms with the Deacon.”  At which insinuation I attempted to smile, but only succeeded in forcing a grim twitch or two to my lips, for at that moment and before I could take one step towards the house, a couple of pigeons rose up from behind the house and flew away in a bee-line for Mother Jane’s cottage.

“Ha!” thought I; “my instinct has not failed me.  Behold the link between this house and the hut in which those tokens of crime were found,” and was for the moment so overwhelmed by this confirmation of my secret suspicions, that I quite forgot to advance, and stood stupidly staring after these birds now rapidly disappearing in the distance.

William’s voice aroused me.

“Come!” he cried.  “Don’t be bashful.  I don’t think much of Deacon Spear myself, but if you do ­Why, what’s the matter now?” he asked, with a startled look at me.  I had clutched him by the arm.

“Nothing,” I protested, “only ­you see that window over there?  The one in the gable of the barn, I mean.  I thought I saw a hand thrust out, ­a white hand that dropped crumbs.  Have they a child on this place?”

“No,” replied William, in an odd voice and with an odd look toward the window I have mentioned.  “Did you really see a hand there?”

“I most certainly did,” I answered, with an air of indifference I was far from feeling.  “Some one is up in the hay-loft; perhaps it is Deacon Spear himself.  If so, he will have to come down, for now that we are here, I am determined you shall do your duty.”

“Deacon Spear can’t climb that hay-loft,” was the perplexed answer I received in a hardly intelligible mutter.  “I’ve been there, and I know; only a boy or a very agile young man could crawl along the beams that lead to that window.  It is the one hiding-place in this part of the lane; and when I said yesterday that if I were the police and had the same search to make which they have, I knew where I would look, I meant that same little platform up behind the hay, whose only outlook is yonder window.  But I forgot that you have no suspicions of our good Deacon; that you are here on quite a different errand than to search for Silly Rufus.  So come along and ­”

But I resisted his impelling hand.  He was so much in earnest and so evidently under the excitement of what appeared to him a great discovery, that he seemed quite another man.  This made my own suspicions less hazardous, and also added to the situation fresh difficulties which could only be met by an appearance on my part of perfect ingenuousness.

Turning back to the buggy as if I had forgotten something, and thus accounting to any one who might be watching us, for the delay we showed in entering the house, I said to William:  “You have reasons for thinking this man a villain, or you wouldn’t be so ready to suspect him.  Now what if I should tell you that I agree with you, and that this is why I have dragged you here this fine morning?”

“I should say you were a deuced smart woman,” was his ready answer.  “But what can you do here?”

“What have we already done?” I asked.  “Discovered that they have some one in hiding in what you call an inaccessible place in the barn.  But didn’t the police examine the whole place yesterday?  They certainly told me they had searched the premises thoroughly.”

“Yes,” he repeated, with great disdain, “they said and they said; but they didn’t climb up to the one hiding-place in sight.  That old fellow Gryce declared it wasn’t worth their while; that only birds could reach that loophole.”

“Oh,” I returned, somewhat taken aback; “you called his attention to it, then?”

To which William answered with a vigorous nod and the grumbling words: 

“I don’t believe in the police.  I think they’re often in league with the very rogues they ­”

But here the necessity of approaching the house became too apparent for further delay.  Deacon Spear had shown himself at the front door, and the sight of his astonished face twisted into a grimace of doubtful welcome drove every other thought away than how we were to acquit ourselves in the coming interview.  Seeing that William was more or less nonplussed by the situation, I caught him by the arm, and whispering, “Let us keep to our first programme,” led him up the walk with much the air of a triumphant captain bringing in a recalcitrant prisoner.

My introduction under these circumstances can be imagined by those who have followed William’s awkward ways.  But the Deacon, who was probably the most surprised, if not the most disconcerted member of the group, possessed a natural fund of conceit and self-complacency that prevented any outward manifestation of his feelings, though I could not help detecting a carefully suppressed antagonism in his eye when he allowed it to fall upon William, which warned me to exercise my full arts in the manipulation of the matter before me.  I accordingly spoke first and with all the prim courtesy such a man might naturally expect from an intruder of my sex and appearance.

“Deacon Spear,” said I, as soon as we were seated in his stiff old-fashioned parlor, “you are astonished to see us here, no doubt, especially after the display of animosity shown towards you yesterday by this graceless young friend of mine.  But it is on account of this unfortunate occurrence that we are here.  After a little reflection and a few hints, I may add, from one who has seen more of life than himself, William felt that he had cause to be ashamed of himself for his show of sport in yesterday’s proceedings, and accordingly he has come in my company to tender his apologies and entreat your forbearance.  Am I not right, William?”

The fellow is a clown under all and every circumstance, and serious as our real purpose was, and dreadful as was the suspicion he professed to cherish against the suave and seemingly respectable member of the community we were addressing, he could not help laughing, as he blunderingly replied: 

“That you are, Miss Butterworth!  She’s always right, Deacon.  I did act like a fool yesterday.”  And seeming to think that, with this one sentence he had played his part out to perfection, he jumped up and strolled out of the house, almost pushing down as he did so the two daughters of the house, who had crept into the hall from the sitting-room to listen.

“Well, well!” exclaimed the Deacon, “you have done wonders, Miss Butterworth, to bring him to even so small an acknowledgment as that!  He’s a vicious one, is William Knollys, and if I were not such a lover of peace and concord, he should not long be the only aggressive one.  But I have no taste for strife, and so you may both regard his apology as accepted.  But why do you rise, madam?  Sit down, I pray, and let me do the honors.  Martha!  Jemima!”

But I would not allow him to summon his daughters.  The man inspired me with too much dislike, if not fear; besides, I was anxious about William.  What was he doing, and of what blunder might he not be guilty without my judicious guidance?

“I am obliged to you,” I returned; “but I cannot wait to meet your daughters now.  Another time, Deacon.  There is important business going on at the other end of the lane, and William’s presence there may be required.”

“Ah,” he observed, following me to the door, “they are digging up Mother Jane’s garden.”

I nodded, restraining myself with difficulty.

“Fool’s work!” he muttered.  Then with a curious look which made me instinctively draw back, he added, “These things must inconvenience you, madam.  I wish you had made your visit to the lane in happier times.”

There was a smirk on his face which made him positively repellent.  I could scarcely bow my acknowledgments, his look and attitude made the interview so obnoxious.  Looking about for William, I stepped down from the stoop.  The Deacon followed me.

“Where is William?” I asked.

The Deacon ran his eye over the place, and suddenly frowned with ill-concealed vexation.

“The scapegrace!” he murmured.  “What business has he in my barn?”

I immediately forced a smile which, in days long past (I’ve almost forgotten them now), used to do some execution.

“Oh, he’s a boy!” I exclaimed.  “Do not mind his pranks, I pray.  What a comfortable place you have here!”

Instantly a change passed over the Deacon, and he turned to me with an air of great interest, broken now and then by an uneasy glance behind him at the barn.

“I am glad you like the place,” he insinuated, keeping close at my side as I stepped somewhat briskly down the walk.  “It is a nice place, worthy of the commendation of so competent a judge as yourself.” (It was a barren, hard-worked farm, without one attractive feature.) “I have lived on it now forty years, thirty-two of them with my beloved wife Caroline, and two ­” Here he stopped and wiped a tear from the dryest eye I ever saw.  “Miss Butterworth, I am a widower.”

I hastened my steps.  I here duly and with the strictest regard for the truth aver, that I decidedly hastened my steps at this very unnecessary announcement.  But he, with another covert glance behind him towards the barn, from which, to my surprise and increasing anxiety, William had not yet emerged, kept well up to me, and only paused when I paused at the side of the road near the buggy.

“Miss Butterworth,” he began, undeterred by the air of dignity I assumed, “I have been thinking that your visit here is a rebuke to my unneighborliness.  But the business which has occupied the lane these last few days has put us all into such a state of unpleasantness that it was useless to attempt sociability.”

His voice was so smooth, his eyes so small and twinkling, that if I could have thought of anything except William’s possible discoveries in the barn, I should have taken delight in measuring my wits against his egotism.

But as it was, I said nothing, possibly because I only half heard what he was saying.

“I am no lady’s man,” ­these were the next words I heard, ­“but then I judge you’re not anxious for flattery, but prefer the square thing uttered by a square man without delay or circumlocution.  Madam, I am fifty-three, and I have been a widower two years.  I am not fitted for a solitary life, and I am fitted for the companionship of an affectionate wife who will keep my hearth clean and my affections in good working order.  Will you be that wife?  You see my home,” ­here his eye stole behind him with that uneasy look towards the barn which William’s presence in it certainly warranted, ­“a home which I can offer you unencumbered, if you ­”

“Desire to live in Lost Man’s Lane,” I put in, subduing both my surprise and my disgust at this preposterous proposal, in order to throw all the sarcasm of which I was capable into this single sentence.

“Oh!” he exclaimed, “you don’t like the neighborhood.  Well, we could go elsewhere.  I am not set against the city myself ­”

Astounded at his presumption, regarding him as a possible criminal, who was endeavoring to beguile me for purposes of his own, I could no longer repress either my indignation or the wrath with which such impromptu addresses naturally inspired me.  Cutting him short with a gesture which made him open his small eyes, I exclaimed in continuation of his remark: 

“Nor, as I take it, are you set against the comfortable little income somebody has told you I possessed.  I see your disinterestedness, Deacon, but I should be sorry to profit by it.  Why, man, I never spoke to you before in my life, and do you think ­”

“Oh!” he suavely insinuated, with a suppressed chuckle which even his increasing uneasiness as to William could not altogether repress, “I see you are not above the flattery that pleases other women.  Well, madam, I know a tremendous fine woman when I see her, and from the moment I saw you riding by the other day, I made up my mind I would have you for the second Mrs. Spear, if persistence and a proper advocacy of my cause could accomplish it.  Madam, I was going to visit you with this proposal to-night, but seeing you here, the temptation was too great for my discretion, and so I have addressed you on the spot.  But you need not answer me at once.  I don’t need to know any more about you than what I can take in with my two eyes, but if you would like a little more acquaintance with me, why I can wait a couple of weeks till we’ve rubbed the edges off our strangeness, when ­”

“When you think I will be so charmed with Deacon Spear that I will be ready to settle down with him in Lost Man’s Lane, or if that will not do, carry him off to Gramercy Park, where he will be the admiration of all New York and Brooklyn to boot.  Why, man, if I was so easily satisfied as that, I would not be in a position to-day for you to honor me with this proposal.  I am not easy to suit, so I advise you to turn your attention to some one much more anxious to be married than I am.  But” ­and here I allowed some of my real feelings to appear ­“if you value your own reputation or the happiness of the lady you propose to inveigle into an union with you, do not venture too far in the matrimonial way till the mystery is dispelled which shrouds Lost Man’s Lane in horror.  If you were an honest man you would ask no one to share your fortunes whilst the least doubt rests upon your reputation.”

My reputation?” He had started very visibly at these words.  “Madam, be careful.  I admire you, but ­”

“No offence,” said I.  “For a stranger I have been, perhaps, unduly frank.  I only mean that any one who lives in this lane must feel himself more or less enveloped by the shadow which rests upon it.  When that is lifted, each and every one of you will feel himself a man again.  From indications to be seen in the lane to-day, that time may not be far distant.  Mother Jane is a likely source for the mysteries that agitate us.  She knows just enough to have no proper idea of the value of a human life.”

The Deacon’s retort was instantaneous.  “Madam,” said he, with a snap of his fingers, “I have not that much interest in what is going on down there.  If men have been killed in this lane (which I do not believe), old Mother Jane has had no hand in it.  My opinion is ­and you may value it or not, just as you please ­that what the people hereabout call crimes are so many coincidences, which some day or other will receive their due explanation.  Every one who has disappeared in this vicinity has disappeared naturally.  No one has been killed.  That is my theory, and you will find it correct.  On this point I have expended more than a little thought.”

I was irate.  I was also dumfounded at his audacity.  Did he think I was the woman to be deceived by any such balderdash as that?  But I shut my lips tightly lest I should say something, and he, not finding this agreeable, being no conversationalist himself, drew himself up with a pompously expressed hope that he would see me again after his reputation was cleared, when his attention as well as my own was diverted by seeing William’s slouching figure appear in the barn door and make slowly towards us.

Instantly the Deacon forgot me in his interest in William’s approach, which was so slow as to be tantalizing to us both.

When he was within speaking distance, Deacon Spear started towards him.

“Well!” he cried; “one would think you had gone back a dozen or so years and were again robbing your neighbor’s hen-roosts.  Been in the hay, eh?” he added, leaning forward and plucking a wisp or two from my companion’s clothes.  “Well, what did you find there?”

In trembling fear for what the lout might answer, I put my hand on the buggy rail and struggled anxiously to my seat.  William stepped forward and loosened the horse before speaking.  Then with a leer he dived into his pocket, and remarking slowly, “I found this,” brought to light a small riding-whip which we both recognized as one he often carried.  “I flung it up in the hay yesterday in one of my fits of laughing, so just thought I would bring it down to-day.  You know it isn’t the first time I’ve climbed about those rafters, Deacon, as you have been good enough to insinuate.”

The Deacon, evidently taken aback, eyed the young fellow with a leer in which I saw something more serious than mere suspicion.

“Was that all?” he began, but evidently thought better than to finish, whilst William, with a nonchalance that surprised me, blunderingly avoided his eye, and, bounding into the buggy beside me, started up the horse and drove slowly off.

Ta, ta, Deacon,” he called back; “if you want to see fun, come up to our end of the lane; there’s precious little here.”  And thus, with a laugh, terminated an interview which, all things considered, was the most exciting as well as the most humiliating I have ever taken part in.

“William,” I began, but stopped.  The two pigeons whose departure I had watched a little while before were coming back, and, as I spoke, fluttered up to the window before mentioned, where they alighted and began picking up the crumbs which I had seen scattered for them.  “See!” I suddenly exclaimed, pointing them out to William.  “Was I mistaken when I thought I saw a hand drop crumbs from that window?”

The answer was a very grave one for him.

“No,” said he, “for I have seen more than a hand, through the loophole I made in the hay.  I saw a man’s leg stretched out as if he were lying on the floor with his head toward the window.  It was but a glimpse I got, but the leg moved as I looked at it, and so I know that some one lies hid in that little nook up under the roof.  Now it isn’t any one belonging to the lane, for I know where every one of us is or ought to be at this blessed moment; and it isn’t a detective, for I heard a sound like heavy sobbing as I crouched there.  Then who is it?  Silly Rufus, I say; and if that hay was all lifted, we would see sights that would make us ashamed of the apologies we uttered to the old sneak just now.”

“I want to get home,” said I.  “Drive fast!  Your sisters ought to know this.”

“The girls?” he cried.  “Yes, it will be a triumph over them.  They never would believe I had an atom of judgment.  But we’ll show them, if William Knollys is altogether a fool.”

We were now near to Mr. Trohm’s hospitable gateway.  Coming from the excitements of my late interview, it was a relief to perceive the genial owner of this beautiful place wandering among his vines and testing the condition of his fruit by a careful touch here and there.  As he heard our wheels he turned, and seeing who we were, threw up his hands in ill-restrained pleasure, and came buoyantly forward.  There was nothing to do but to stop, so we stopped.

“Why, William!  Why, Miss Butterworth, what a pleasure!” Such was his amiable greeting.  “I thought you were all busy at your end of the lane; but I see you have just come from town.  Had an errand there, I suppose?”

“Yes,” William grumbled, eying the luscious pear Mr. Trohm held in his hand.

The look drew a smile from that gentleman.

“Admiring the first fruits?” he observed.  “Well, it is a handsome specimen,” he admitted, handing it to me with his own peculiar grace.  “I beg you will take it, Miss Butterworth.  You look tired; pardon me if I mention it.” (He is the only person I know who detects any signs of suffering or fatigue on my part.)

“I am worried by the mysteries of this lane,” I ventured to remark.  “I hate to see Mother Jane’s garden uprooted.”

“Ah!” he acquiesced, with much evidence of good feeling, “it is a distressing thing to witness.  I wish she might have been spared.  William, there are other pears on the tree this came from.  Tie up the horse, I pray, and gather a dozen or so of these for your sisters.  They will never be in better condition for plucking than they are to-day.”

William, whose mouth and eyes were both watering for a taste of the fine fruit thus offered, moved with alacrity to obey this invitation, while I, more startled than pleased ­or, rather, as much startled as pleased ­by the prospect of a momentary tete-a-tete with our agreeable neighbor, sat uneasily eying the luscious fruit in my hand, and wishing I was ten years younger, that the blush I felt slowly stealing up my cheek might seem more appropriate to the occasion.

But Mr. Trohm appeared not to share my wish.  He was evidently so satisfied with me as I was, that he found it difficult to speak at first, and when he did ­But tut! tut! you have no desire to hear any such confidences as these, I am sure.  A middle-aged gentleman’s expressions of admiration for a middle-aged lady may savor of romance to her, but hardly to the rest of the world, so I will pass this conversation by, with the single admission that it ended in a question to which I felt obliged to return a reluctant No.

Mr. Trohm was just recovering from the disappointment of this, when William sauntered back with his hands and pockets full.

“Ah!” that graceless scamp chuckled, with a suspicious look at our downcast faces, “been improving the opportunity, eh?”

Mr. Trohm, who had fallen back against his old well-curb, surveyed his young neighbor for the first time with a look of anger.  But it vanished almost as quickly as it appeared, and he contented himself with a low bow, in which I read real grief.

This was too much for me, and I was about to open my lips with a kind phrase or two, when a flutter took place over our heads, and the two pigeons whose flight I had watched more than once during the last hour, flew down and settled upon Mr. Trohm’s arm and shoulders.

“Oh!” I exclaimed, with a sudden shrinking that I hardly understood myself.  And though I covered up the exclamation with as brisk a good-by as my inward perturbation would allow, that sight and the involuntary ejaculation I had uttered, were all I saw or heard during our hasty drive homeward.

CHAPTER V - I ASTONISH MR. GRYCE AND HE ASTONISHES ME

But as we approached the group of curious people which now filled up the whole highway in front of Mother Jane’s cottage, I broke from the nightmare into which this last discovery had thrown me, and, turning to William, said with a resolute air: 

“You and your sisters are not of one mind regarding these disappearances.  You ascribe them to Deacon Spear, but they ­whom do they ascribe them to?”

“I shouldn’t think it would take a woman of your wit to answer that question.”

The rebuke was deserved.  I had wit, but I had refused to exercise it; my blind partiality for a man of pleasing exterior and magnetic address had prevented the cool play of my usual judgment, due to the occasion and the trust which had been imposed in me by Mr. Gryce.  Resolved that this should end, no matter at what cost to my feelings, I quietly said: 

“You allude to Mr. Trohm.”

“That is the name,” he carelessly assented.  “Girls, you know, let their prejudices run away with them.  An old grudge ­”

“Yes,” I tentatively put in; “he persecuted your mother, and so they think him capable of any wickedness.”

The growl which William gave was not one of dissent.

“But I don’t care what they think,” said he, looking down at the heap of fruit which lay between us.  “I’m Trohm’s friend, and don’t believe one word they choose to insinuate against him.  What if he didn’t like what my mother did!  We didn’t like it either, and ­”

“William,” I calmly remarked, “if your sisters knew that Silly Rufus had been found in Deacon Spear’s barn they would no longer do Mr. Trohm this injustice.”

“No; that would settle them; that would give me a triumph which would last long after this matter was out of the way.”

“Very well, then,” said I, “I am going to bring about this triumph.  I am going to tell Mr. Gryce at once what we have discovered in Deacon Spear’s barn.”

And without waiting for his ah, yes, or no, I jumped from the buggy and made my way to the detective’s side.

His welcome was somewhat unexpected.  “Ah, fresh news!” he exclaimed.  “I see it in your eye.  What have you chanced upon, madam, in your disinterested drive into town?”

I thought I had eliminated all expression from my face, and that my words would bring a certain surprise with them.  But it is useless to try to surprise Mr. Gryce.

“You read me like a book,” said I; “I have something to add to the situation.  Mr. Gryce, I have just come from the other end of the lane, where I found a clue which may shorten the suspense of this weary day, and possibly save Lucetta from the painful task she has undertaken in our interests.  Mr. Chittenden’s ring ­”

I paused for the exclamation of encouragement he is accustomed to give on such occasions, and while I paused, prepared for my accustomed triumph.  He did not fail me in the exclamation, nor did I miss my expected triumph.

“Was not found by Mother Jane, or even brought to her in any ordinary way or by any ordinary messenger.  It came to her on a pigeon’s neck, the pigeon you will find lying dead among the bushes in the Knollys yard.”

He was amazed.  He controlled himself, but he was very visibly amazed.  His exclamations proved it.

“Madam!  Miss Butterworth!  This ring ­Mr. Chittenden’s ring, whose presence in her hut we thought an evidence of guilt, was brought to her by one of her pigeons?”

“So she told me.  I aroused her fury by showing her the empty husk in which it had been concealed.  In her rage at its loss, she revealed the fact I have just mentioned.  It is a curious one, sir, and one I am a little proud to have discovered.”

“Curious?  It is more than curious; it is bizarre, and will rank, I am safe in prophesying, as one of the most remarkable facts that have ever adorned the annals of the police.  Madam, when I say I envy you the honor of its discovery, you will appreciate my estimate of it ­and you.  But when did you find this out, and what explanation are you able to give of the presence of this ring on a pigeon’s neck?”

“Sir, to your first question I need only reply that I was here two hours or so ago, and to the second that everything points to the fact that the ring was attached to the bird by the victim himself, as an appeal for succor to whoever might be fortunate enough to find it.  Unhappily it fell into the wrong hands.  That is the ill-luck which often befalls prisoners.”

“Prisoners?”

“Yes.  Cannot you imagine a person shut up in an inaccessible place making some such attempt to communicate with his fellow-creatures?”

“But what inaccessible place have we in ­”

“Wait,” said I.  “You have been in Deacon Spear’s barn.”

“Certainly, many times.”  But the answer, glib as it was, showed shock.  I began to gather courage.

“Well,” said I, “there is a hiding-place in that barn which I dare declare you have not penetrated.”

“Do you think so, madam?”

“A little loft way up under the eaves, which can only be reached by clambering over the rafters.  Didn’t Deacon Spear tell you there was such a place?”

“No, but ­”

“William, then?” I inexorably pursued.  “He says he pointed such a spot out to you, and that you pooh-poohed at it as inaccessible and not worth the searching.”

“William is a ­Madam, I beg your pardon, but William has just wit enough to make trouble.”

“But there is such a place there,” I urged; “and, what is more, there is some one hidden in it now.  I saw him myself.”

You saw him?”

“Saw a part of him; in short, saw his hand.  He was engaged in scattering crumbs for the pigeons.”

“That does not look like starvation,” smiled Mr. Gryce, with the first hint of sarcasm he had allowed himself to make use of in this interview.

“No,” said I; “but the time may not have come to inflict this penalty on Silly Rufus.  He has been there but a few days, and ­well, what have I said now?”

“Nothing, ma’am, nothing.  But what made you think the hand you saw belonged to Silly Rufus?”

“Because he was the last person to disappear from this lane.  The last ­what am I saying?  He wasn’t the last.  Lucetta’s lover was the last.  Mr. Gryce, could that hand have belonged to Mr. Ostrander?”

I was intensely excited; so much so that Mr. Gryce made me a warning gesture.

“Hush!” he whispered; “you are attracting attention.  That hand was the hand of Mr. Ostrander; and the reason why I did not accept William Knollys’ suggestion to search the Deacon’s barn-loft was because I knew it had been chosen as a place of refuge by this missing lover of Lucetta.”

CHAPTER VI - A FEW WORDS

Never have keener or more conflicting emotions been awakened in my breast than by these simple words.  But alive to the necessity of hiding my feelings from those about me, I gave no token of my surprise, but rather turned a stonier face than common upon the man who had caused it.

“Refuge?” I repeated.  “He is there, then, of his own free will ­or yours?” I sarcastically added, not being able to quite keep down this reproach as I remembered the deception practised upon Lucetta.

“Mr. Ostrander, madam, has been spending the week with Deacon Spear ­they are old friends, you know.  That he should spend it quietly and, to a degree, in hiding, was as much his plan as mine.  For while he found it impossible to leave Lucetta in the doubtful position in which she and her family at present stand, he did not wish to aggravate her misery by the thought that he was thus jeopardizing the position on which all his hopes of future advancement depended.  He preferred to watch and wait in secret, seeing which, I did what I could to further his wishes.  His usual lodging was with the family, but when the search was instituted, I suggested that he should remove himself to that eyrie back of the hay where you were sharp enough to detect him to-day.”

“Don’t attempt any of your flatteries upon me,” I protested.  “They will not make me forget that I have not been treated fairly.  And Lucetta ­oh! may I not tell Lucetta ­”

“And spoil our entire prospect of solving this mystery?  No, madam, you may not tell Lucetta.  When Fate has put such a card into our hands as I played with that telegram to-day, we would be flying in the face of Providence not to profit by it.  Lucetta’s despair makes her bold; upon that boldness we depend to discover and bring to justice a great criminal.”

I felt myself turn pale; for that very reason, perhaps, I assumed a still sterner air, and composedly said: 

“If Mr. Ostrander is in hiding at the Deacon’s, and he and his host are both in your confidence, then the only man whom you can designate in your thoughts by this dreadful title must be Mr. Trohm.”

I had perhaps hoped he would recoil at this or give some other evidence of his amazement at an assumption which to me seemed preposterous.  But he did not, and I saw, with what feelings may be imagined, that this conclusion, which was half bravado with me, had been accepted by him long enough for no emotion to follow its utterance.

“Oh!” I exclaimed, “how can you reconcile such a suspicion with the attitude you have always preserved towards Mr. Trohm?”

“Madam,” said he, “do not criticise my attitude without taking into account existing appearances.  They are undoubtedly in Mr. Trohm’s favor.”

“I am glad to hear you say so,” said I, “I am glad to hear you say so.  Why, it was in response to his appeal that you came to X. at all.”

Mr. Gryce’s smile conveyed a reproach which I could not but acknowledge I amply merited.  Had he spent evening after evening at my house, entertaining me with tales of the devices and the many inconsistencies of criminals, to be met now by such a puerile disclaimer as this?  But beyond that smile he said nothing; on the contrary, he continued as if I had not spoken at all.

“But appearances,” he declared, “will not stand before the insight of a girl like Lucetta.  She has marked the man as guilty, and we will give her the opportunity of proving the correctness of her instinct.”

“But Mr. Trohm’s house has been searched, and you have found nothing ­nothing,” I argued somewhat feebly.

“That is the reason we find ourselves forced to yield our judgment to Lucetta’s intuitions,” was his quick reply.  And smiling upon me with his blandest air, he obligingly added:  “Miss Butterworth is a woman of too much character not to abide the event with all her accustomed composure.”  And with this final suggestion, I was as yet too crushed to resent, he dismissed me to an afternoon of unparalleled suspense and many contradictory emotions.

CHAPTER VII - UNDER A CRIMSON SKY

When, in the course of events, the current of my thoughts receive a decided check and I find myself forced to change former conclusions or habituate myself to new ideas and a fresh standpoint, I do it, as I do everything else, with determination and a total disregard of my own previous predilections.  Before the afternoon was well over I was ready for any revelations which might follow Lucetta’s contemplated action, merely reserving a vague hope that my judgment would yet be found superior to her instinct.

At five o’clock the diggers began to go home.  Nothing had been found under the soil of Mother Jane’s garden, and the excitement of search which had animated them early in the day had given place to a dull resentment mainly directed towards the Knollys family, if one could judge of these men’s feelings by the heavy scowls and significant gestures with which they passed our broken-down gateway.

By six the last man had filed by, leaving Mr. Gryce free for the work which lay before him.

I had retired long before this to my room, where I awaited the hour set by Lucetta with a feverish impatience quite new to me.  As none of us could eat, the supper table had not been laid, and though I had no means of knowing what was in store for us, the sombre silence and oppression under which the whole house lay seemed a portent that was by no means encouraging.

Suddenly I heard a knock at my door.  Rising hastily, I opened it.  Loreen stood before me, with parted lips and terror in all her looks.

“Come!” she cried.  “Come and see what I have found in Lucetta’s room.”

“Then she’s gone?” I cried.

“Yes, she’s gone, but come and see what she has left behind her.”

Hastening after Loreen, who was by this time half-way down the hall, I soon found myself on the threshold of the room I knew to be Lucetta’s.

“She made me promise,” cried Loreen, halting to look back at me, “that I would let her go alone, and that I would not enter the highway till an hour after her departure.  But with these evidences of the extent of her dread before us, how can we stay in this house?” And dragging me to a table, she showed me lying on its top a folded paper and two letters.  The folded paper was Lucetta’s Will, and the letters were directed severally to Loreen and to myself with the injunction that they were not to be read till she had been gone six hours.

“She has prepared herself for death!” I exclaimed, shocked to my heart’s core, but determinedly hiding it.  “But you need not fear any such event.  Is she not accompanied by Mr. Gryce?”

“I do not know; I do not think so.  How could she accomplish her task if not alone?  Miss Butterworth, Miss Butterworth, she has gone to brave Mr. Trohm, our mother’s persecutor and our life-long enemy, thinking, hoping, believing that in so doing she will rouse his criminal instincts, if he has them, and so lead to the discovery of his crimes and the means by which he has been enabled to carry them out so long undetected.  It is noble, it is heroic, it is martyr-like, but ­oh!  Miss Butterworth, I have never broken a promise to any one before in all my life, but I am going to break the one I made her.  Come, let us fly after her!  She has her lover’s memory, but I have nothing in all the world but her.”

I immediately turned and hastened down the stairs in a state of humiliation which should have made ample amends for any show of arrogance I may have indulged in in my more fortunate moments.

Loreen followed me, and when we were in the lower hall she gave me a look and said: 

“My promise was not to enter the highway.  Would you be afraid to follow me by another road ­a secret road ­all overgrown with thistles and blackberry bushes which have not been trimmed up for years?”

I thought of my thin shoes, my neat silk dress, but only to forget them the next moment.

“I will go anywhere,” said I.

But Loreen was already too far in advance of me to answer.  She was young and lithe, and had reached the kitchen before I had passed the Flower Parlor.  But when we had sped clear of the house I found that my progress bade fair to be as rapid as hers, for her agitation was a hindrance to her, while excitement always brings out my powers and heightens both my wits and my judgment.

Our way lay past the stables, from which I expected every minute to see two or three dogs jump.  But William, who had been discreetly sent out of the way early in the afternoon, had taken Saracen with him, and possibly the rest, so our passing by disturbed nothing, not even ourselves.  The next moment we were in a field of prickers, through which we both struggled till we came into a sort of swamp.  Here was bad going, but we floundered on, edging continually toward a distant fence beyond which rose the symmetrical lines of an orchard ­Mr. Trohm’s orchard, in which those pleasant fruits grew which ­Bah! should I ever be able to get the taste of them out of my mouth!

At a tiny gateway covered with vines, Loreen stopped.

“I do not believe this has been opened for years, but it must be opened now.”  And, throwing her whole weight against it, she burst it through, and bidding me pass, hastened after me over the trailing branches and made, without a word, for the winding path we now saw clearly defined on the edge of the orchard before us.

“Oh!” exclaimed Loreen, stopping one moment to catch her breath, “I do not know what I fear or to what our steps will bring us.  I only know that I must hunt for Lucetta till I find her.  If there is danger where she is, I must share it.  You can rest here or come farther on.”

I went farther on.

Suddenly we both started; a man had sprung up from behind the hedgerow that ran parallel with the fence that surrounded Mr. Trohm’s place.

“Silence!” he whispered, putting his finger on his lips.  “If you are looking for Miss Knollys,” he added, seeing us both pause aghast, “she is on the lawn beyond, talking to Mr. Trohm.  If you will step here, you can see her.  She is in no kind of danger, but if she were, Mr. Gryce is in the first row of trees to the back there, and a call from me ­”

That made me remember my whistle.  It was still round my neck, but my hand, which had instinctively gone to it, fell again in extraordinary emotion as I realized the situation and compared it with that of the morning when, blinded by egotism and foolish prejudice in favor of this man, I ate of his fruit and hearkened to his outrageous addresses.

“Come!” beckoned Loreen, happily too absorbed in her own emotions to notice mine.  “Let us get nearer.  If Mr. Trohm is the wicked man we fear, there is no telling what the means are which he uses to get rid of his victims.  There was nothing to be found in his house, but who knows where the danger may lurk, and that it may not be near her now?  It was evidently to dare it she came, to offer herself as a martyr, that we might know ­”

“Hush!” I whispered, controlling my own fears roused against my will by this display of terror in this usually calmest of natures.  “No danger can menace her where they stand, unless he is a common assassin and carries a pistol ­”

“No pistol,” murmured the man, who had crept again near us.  “Pistols make a noise.  He will not use a pistol.”

“Good God!” I whispered. “You do not share her sister’s fears that it is in the heart of this man to kill Lucetta?”

“Five strong men have disappeared hereabout,” said the fellow, never moving his eye from the couple before us.  “Why not one weak girl?”

With a cry Loreen started forward.  “Run!” she whispered.  “Run!”

But as this word left her lips, a slight movement took place in the belt of trees where we had been told Mr. Gryce lay in hiding, and we could see him issue for a moment into sight with his finger like that of his man laid warningly on his lips.  Loreen trembled and drew back, seeing which, the man beside us pointed to the hedge and whispered softly: 

“There is just room between it and the fence for a person to pass sideways.  If you and this lady want to get nearer to Miss Knollys, you might take that road.  But Mr. Gryce will expect you to be very quiet.  The young lady expressly said, before she came into this place, that she could do nothing if for any reason Mr. Trohm should suspect they were not alone.”

“We will be quiet,” I assured him, anxious to hide my face, which I felt twitch at every mention of Mr. Trohm’s name.  Loreen was already behind the hedge.

The evening was one of those which are made for peace.  The sun, which had set in crimson, had left a glow on the branches of the forest which had not yet faded into the gray of twilight.  The lawn, around which we were skirting, had not lost the mellow brilliancy which made it sparkle, nor had the cluster of varied-hued hollyhocks which set their gorgeousness against the neat yellow of the peaceful doorposts, shown any dimness in their glory, which was on a par with that of the setting sun.  But though I saw all this, it no longer appeared to me desirable.  Lucetta and Lucetta’s fate, the mystery and the impossibility of its being explained out here in the midst of turf and blossoms, filled all my thoughts, and made me forget my own secret cause for shame and humiliation.

Loreen, who had wormed her way along till she crouched nearly opposite to the place where her sister stood, plucked me by the gown as I approached her, and, pointing to the hedge, which pressed up so close it nearly touched our faces, seemed to bid me look through.  Searching for a spot where there was a small opening, I put my eye to this and immediately drew back.

“They are moving nearer the gate,” I signalled to Loreen, at which she crept along a few paces, but with a stealth so great that, alert as I was, I could not hear a twig snap.  I endeavored to imitate her, but not with as much success as I could wish.  The sense of horror which had all at once settled upon me, the supernatural dread of something which I could not see, but which I felt, had seized me for the first time and made the ruddy sky and the broad stretch of velvet turf with the shadows playing over it of swaying tree-tops and clustered oleanders, more thrilling and awesome to me than the dim halls of the haunted house of the Knollys family in that midnight hour when I saw a body carried out for burial amid trouble and hush and a mystery so great it would have daunted most spirits for the remainder of their lives.

The very sweetness of the scene made its horror.  Never have I had such sensations, never have I felt so deeply the power of the unseen, yet it seemed so impossible that anything could happen here, anything which would explain the total disappearance of several persons at different times, without a trace of their fate being left to the eye, that I could but liken my state to that of nightmare, where visions take the place of realities and often overwhelm them.

I had pressed too close against the hedge as I struggled with these feelings, and the sound I made struck me as distinct, if not alarming; but the tree-tops were rustling overhead, and, while Lucetta might have heard the hedge-branches crack, her companion gave no evidence of doing so.  We could distinguish what they were saying now, and realizing this, we stopped moving and gave our whole attention to listening.  Mr. Trohm was speaking.  I could hardly believe it was his voice, it had so changed in tone, nor could I perceive in his features, distorted as they now were by every evil passion, the once quiet and dignified countenance which had so lately imposed upon me.

“Lucetta, my little Lucetta,” he was saying, “so she has come to see me, come to taunt me with the loss of her lover, whom she says I have robbed her of almost before her eyes!  I rob her!  How can I rob her or any one of a man with a voice and arm of his own stronger than mine?  Am I a wizard to dissipate his body in vapor?  Yet can you find it in my house or on my lawn?  You are a fool, Lucetta; so are all these men about here fools!  It is in your house ­”

“Hush!” she cried, her slight figure rising till we forgot it was the feeble Lucetta we were gazing at.  “No more accusations directed against us.  It is you who must expect them now.  Mr. Trohm, your evil practices are discovered.  To-morrow you will have the police here in earnest.  They did but play with you when they were here before.”

“You child!” he gasped, striving, however, to restrain all evidences of shock and terror.  “Why, who was it called in the police and set them working in Lost Man’s Lane?  Was it not I ­”

“Yes, that they might not suspect you, and perhaps that they might suspect us.  But it was useless, Obadiah Trohm.  Althea Knollys’ children have been long-suffering, but the limit of their forbearance has been reached.  When you laid your hand upon my lover, you roused a spirit in me that nothing but your own destruction can satisfy.  Where is he, Mr. Trohm? and where is Silly Rufus and all the rest who have vanished between Deacon Spear’s house and the little home of the cripples on the highroad?  They have asked me this question, but if any one in Lost Man’s Lane can answer, it is you, persecutor of my mother, and traducer of ourselves, whom I here denounce in face of these skies where God reigns and this earth where man lives to harry and condemn.”

And then I saw that the instinct of this girl had accomplished what our united acumen and skill had failed to do.  The old man ­indeed he seemed an old man now ­cringed, and the wrinkles came out in his face till he was demoniacally ugly.

“You viper!” he shrieked.  “How dare you accuse me of crime ­you whose mother would have died in jail but for my forbearance?  Have you ever seen me set my foot upon a worm?  Look at my fruit and flowers, look at my home, without a spot or blemish to mar its neatness and propriety.  Can a man who loves these things stomach the destruction of a man, much less of a silly, yawping boy?  Lucetta, you are mad!”

“Mad or sane, my accusation will have its results, Mr. Trohm.  I believe too deeply in your guilt not to make others do so.”

“Ah,” said he, “then you have not done so yet?  You believe this and that, but you have not told any one what your suspicions are?”

“No,” she calmly returned, though her face blanched to the colorlessness of wax, “I have not said what I think of you yet.”

Oh, the cunning that crept into his face!

“She has not said.  Oh, the little Lucetta, the wise, the careful little Lucetta!”

“But I will,” she cried, meeting his eye with the courage and constancy of a martyr, “though I bring destruction upon myself.  I will denounce you and do it before the night has settled down upon us.  I have a lover to avenge, a brother to defend.  Besides, the earth should be rid of such a monster as you.”

“Such a monster as I?  Well, my pretty one,” ­his voice grown suddenly wheedling, his face a study of mingled passions, ­“we will see about that.  Come just a step nearer, Lucetta.  I want to see if you are really the little girl I used to dandle on my knee.”

They were now near the gateway.  They had been moving all this time.  His hand was on the curb of the old well.  His face, so turned that it caught the full glare of the setting sun, leaned toward the girl, exerting a fascinating influence upon her.  She took the step he asked, and before we could shriek out “Beware!” we saw him bend forward with a sudden quick motion and then start upright again, while her form, which but an instant before had stood there in all its frail and inspired beauty, tottered as if the ground were bending under it, and in another moment disappeared from our appalled sight, swallowed in some dreadful cavern that for an instant yawned in the smoothly cut lawn before us, and then vanished again from sight as if it had never been.

A shriek from my whistle mingled with a simultaneous cry of agony from Loreen.  We heard Mr. Gryce rush from behind us, but we ourselves found it impossible to stir, paralyzed as we were by the sight of the old man’s demoniacal delight.  He was leaping to and fro over the turf, holding up his fingers in the red sunset glare.

“Six!” he shrieked.  “Six! and room for two more!  Oh, it’s a merry life I lead!  Flowers and fruit and love-making” (oh, how I cringed at that!), “and now and then a little spice like this!  But where is my pretty Lucetta?  Surely she was here a moment ago.  How could she have vanished, then, so quickly?  I do not see her form amid the trees, there is no trace of her presence upon the lawn, and if they search the house from top to bottom and from bottom to top they will find nothing of her ­no, not so much as a print of her footstep or the scent of the violets she so often wears tucked into her hair.”

These last words, uttered in a different voice from the rest, gave the clue to the whole situation.  We saw, even while we all bounded forward to the rescue of the devoted maiden, that he was one of those maniacs who have perfect control over themselves and pass for very decent sort of men except in the moment of triumph; and, noting his look of sinister delight, perceived that half his pleasure and almost his sole reward for the horrible crimes he had perpetrated, was in the mystery surrounding his victims and the entire immunity from suspicion which up to this time he had enjoyed.

Meantime Mr. Gryce had covered the wretch with his pistol, and his man, who succeeded in reaching the place even sooner than ourselves, hampered as we were by the almost impenetrable hedge behind which we had crouched, tried to lift the grass-covered lid we could faintly discern there.  But this was impossible until I, with almost superhuman self-possession, considering the imperative nature of the emergency, found the spring hidden in the well-curb which worked the deadly mechanism.  A yell from the writhing creature cowering under the detective’s pistol guided me unconsciously in its action, and in another moment we saw the fatal lid tip and disclose what appeared to be the remains of a second well, long ago dried up and abandoned for the other.

The rescue of Lucetta followed.  As she had fainted in falling she had not suffered much, and soon we had the supreme delight of seeing her eyes unclose.

“Ah,” she murmured, in a voice whose echo pierced to every heart save that of the guilty wretch now lying handcuffed on the sward, “I thought I saw Albert!  He was not dead, and I ­”

But here Mr. Gryce, with an air at once contrite and yet strangely triumphant, interposed his benevolent face between hers and her weeping sister’s and whispered something in her ear which turned her pallid cheek to a glowing scarlet.  Rising up, she threw her arms around his neck and let him lift her.  As he carried her ­where was his rheumatism now? ­out of those baleful grounds and away from the reach of the maniac’s mingled laughs and cries, her face was peace itself.  But his ­well, his was a study.

CHAPTER VIII - EXPLANATIONS

The hour we all spent together late that night in the old house was unlike any hour which that place had seen for years.  Mr. Ostrander, Lucetta, Loreen, William, Mr. Gryce, and myself, all were there, and as an especial grace, Saracen was allowed to enter, that there might not be a cloud upon a single face there assembled.  Though it is a small matter, I will add that this dog persisted in lying down by my side, not yielding even to the wiles of his master, whose amusement over this fact kept him good-natured to the last adieu.

There were too few candles in the house to make it bright, but Lucetta’s unearthly beauty, the peace in Loreen’s soft eyes, made us forget the sombreness of our surroundings and the meagreness of the entertainment Hannah attempted to offer us.  It was the promise of coming joy, and when, our two guests departed, I bade good-night to the girls in their grim upper hall, it was with feelings which found their best expression in the two letters I hastened to write as soon as I gained the refuge of my own apartment.  I will admit you sufficiently into my confidence to let you read those letters.  The first of them ran thus: 

     “DEAR OLIVE: 

“To make others happy is the best way to forget our own misfortunes.  A sudden wedding is to take place in this house.  Order at once for me from the shops you know me to be in the habit of patronizing, a wedding gown of dainty white taffeta [I did this not to recall too painfully to herself the wedding dress I helped her buy, and which was, as you may remember, of creamy satin], with chiffon trimmings, and a wedding veil of tulle.  Add to this a dress suitable for ocean travel and a half-dozen costumes adapted to a southern climate.  Let everything be suitable for a delicate but spirited girl who has seen trouble, but who is going to be happy now if a little attention and money can make her so.  Do not spare expense, yet show no extravagance, for she is a shy bird, easily frightened.  The measurements you will find enclosed; also those of another young lady, her sister, who must also be supplied with a white dress, the material of which, however, had better be of crape.

“All these things must be here by Wednesday evening, my own best dress included.  On Saturday evening you may look for my return.  I shall bring the latter young lady with me, so your present loneliness will be forgotten in the pleasure of entertaining an agreeable guest.  Faithfully yours,

     “AMELIA BUTTERWORTH.”

The second letter was a longer and more important one.  It was directed to the president of the company which had proposed to send Mr. Ostrander to South America.  In it I related enough of the circumstances which had kept Mr. Ostrander in X. to interest him in the young couple personally, and then I told him that if he would forgive Mr. Ostrander this delay and allow him to sail with his young bride by the next steamer, I myself would undertake to advance whatever sums might have been lost by this change of arrangement.

I did not know then that Mr. Gryce had already made this matter good with this same gentleman.

The next morning we all took a walk in the lane. (I say nothing about the night.  If I did not choose to sleep, or if I had any cause not to feel quite as elevated in spirit as the young people about me, there is surely no reason why I should dwell upon it with you or even apologize for a weakness which you will regard, I hope, as an exception setting off my customary strength.)

Now a walk in this lane was an event.  To feel at liberty to stroll among its shadows without fear, to know that the danger had been so located that we all felt free to inhale the autumn air and to enjoy the beauties of the place without a thought of peril lurking in its sweetest nooks and most attractive coverts, gave to this short half-hour a distinctive delight aptly expressed by Loreen when she said: 

“I never knew the place was so beautiful.  Why, I think I can be happy here now.”  At which Lucetta grew pensive, till I roused her by saying: 

“So much for a constitutional, girls.  Now we must to work.  This house, as you see it now, has to be prepared for a wedding.  William, your business will be to see that these grounds are put in as good order as possible in the short time allotted to you.  I will bear the expense, and Loreen ­”

But William had a word to say for himself.

“Miss Butterworth,” said he, “you’re a right good sort of woman, as Saracen has found out, and we, too, in these last few plaguy days.  But I’m not such a bad lot either, and if I do like my own way, which may not be other people’s way, and if I am sometimes short with the girls for some of their d ­d nonsense, I have a little decency about me, too, and I promise to fix these grounds, and out of my own money, too.  Now that nine tenths of our income does not have to go abroad, we’ll have chink enough to let us live in a respectable manner once more in a place where one horse, if he’s good enough, will give a fellow a standing and make him the envy of those who, for some other pesky reasons, may think themselves called upon to fight shy of him.  I don’t begrudge the old place a few dollars, especially as I mean to live and die in it; so look out, you three women folks, and work as lively as you can on the inside of the old rookery, or the slickness of the outside will put you to open shame, and that would never please Loreen, nor, as I take it, Miss Butterworth either.”

It was a challenge we were glad to accept, especially as from the number of persons we now saw come flocking into the lane, it was very apparent that we should experience no further difficulty in obtaining any help we might need to carry out our undertakings.

Meantime my thoughts were not altogether concentrated upon these pleasing plans for Lucetta’s benefit.  There were certain points yet to be made clear in the matter just terminated, and there was a confession for me to make, without which I could not face Mr. Gryce with all that unwavering composure which our peculiar relations seemed to demand.

The explanations came first.  They were volunteered by Mr. Gryce, whom I met in the course of the morning at Mother Jane’s cottage.  That old crone had been perfectly happy all night, sleeping with the coin in her hand and waking to again devour it with her greedy but loving eyes.  As I was alternately watching her and Mr. Gryce, who was directing with his hand the movements of the men who had come to smooth down her garden and make it presentable again, the detective spoke: 

“I suppose you have found it difficult, in the light of these new discoveries, to explain to yourself how Mother Jane happened to have those trinkets from the peddler’s pack, and also how the ring, which you very naturally thought must have been entrusted to the dove by Mr. Chittenden himself, came to be about its neck when it flew home that day of Mr. Chittenden’s disappearance.  Madam, we think old Mother Jane must have helped herself out of the peddler’s pack before it was found in the woods there back of her hut, and of the other matter our explanation is this: 

“One day a young man, equipped for travelling, paused for a glass of water at the famous well in Mr. Trohm’s garden just as Mother Jane’s pigeons were picking up the corn scattered for them by the former, whose tastes are not confined to the cultivation of fruits and flowers, but extend to dumb animals, to whom he is uniformly kind.  The young man wore a ring, and, being nervous, was fiddling with it as he talked to the pleasant old gentleman who was lowering the bucket for him.  As he fiddled with it, the earth fell from under him, and as the daylight vanished above his head, the ring flew from his up-thrown hand, and lay, the only token of his now blotted-out existence, upon the emerald sward he had but a moment before pressed with his unsuspicious feet.  It burned ­this ruby burned like a drop of blood in the grass, when that demon came again to his senses, and being a tell-tale evidence of crime in the eyes of one who had allowed nothing to ever speak against him in these matters, he stared at it as at a deadly thing directed against himself and to be got rid of at once and by means which by no possibility could recoil back upon himself as its author.

“The pigeons stalking near offered to his abnormally acute understanding the only solution which would leave him absolutely devoid of fear.  He might have swung open the lid of the well once more and flung it after its owner, but this meant an aftermath of experience from which he shrank, his delight being in the thought that the victims he saw vanish before his eyes were so many encumbrances wiped off the face of the earth by a sweep of the hand.  To see or hear them again would be destructive of this notion.  He preferred the subtler way and to take advantage of old Mother Jane’s characteristics, so he caught one of the pigeons (he has always been able to lure birds into his hands), and tying the ring around the neck of the bird with a blade of grass plucked up from the highway, he let it fly, and so was rid of the bauble which to Mother Jane’s eyes, of course, was a direct gift from the heavens through which the bird had flown before lighting on her doorstep.”

“Wonderful!” I exclaimed, almost overwhelmed with humiliation, but preserving a brave front.  “What invention and what audacity! ­the invention and the audacity of a man totally irresponsible for his deeds, was it not?” I asked.  “There is no doubt, is there, about his being an absolute maniac?”

“No, madam.”  What a relief I felt at that word!  “Since we entrapped him yesterday and he found himself fully discovered, he has lost all grip upon himself and fills the room we put him in with the unmistakable ravings of a madman.  It was through these I learned the facts I have just mentioned.”

I drew a deep breath.  We were standing in the sight of several men, and their presence there seemed intolerable.  Unconsciously I began to walk away.  Unconsciously Mr. Gryce followed me.  At the end of several paces we both stopped.  We were no longer visible to the crowd, and I felt I could speak the words I had been burning to say ever since I saw the true nature of Mr. Trohm’s character exposed.

“Mr. Gryce,” said I, flushing scarlet ­which I here solemnly declare is something which has not happened to me before in years, and if I can help it shall never happen to me again, ­“I am interested in what you say, because yesterday, at his own gateway, Mr. Trohm proposed to me, and ­”

“You did not accept him?”

“No.  What do you think I am made of, Mr. Gryce?  I did not accept him, but I made the refusal a gentle one, and ­this is not easy work, Mr. Gryce,” I interrupted myself to say with suitable grimness ­“the same thing took place between me and Deacon Spear, and to him I gave a response such as I thought his presumption warranted.  The discrimination does not argue well for my astuteness, Mr. Gryce.  You see, I crave no credit that I do not deserve.  Perhaps you cannot understand that, but it is a part of my nature.”

“Madam,” said he, and I must own I thought his conduct perfect, “had I not been as completely deceived as yourself I might find words of criticism for this possibly unprofessional partiality.  But when an old hand like myself can listen to the insinuations of a maniac, and repose, as I must say I did repose, more or less confidence in the statements he chose to make me, and which were true enough as to the facts he mentioned, but wickedly false and preposterously wrong in suggestion, I can have no words of blame for a woman who, whatever her understanding and whatever her experience, necessarily has seen less of human nature and its incalculable surprises.  As to the more delicate matter you have been good enough to confide to me, madam, I have but one remark to make.  With such an example of womanhood suddenly brought to their notice in such a wild as this, how could you expect them, sane or insane, to do otherwise than they did?  I know many a worthy man who would like to follow their example.”  And with a bow that left me speechless, Mr. Gryce laid his hand on his heart and softly withdrew.