The Gray Mask/Chapter 8

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CHAPTER VIII

THROUGH THE DARK

THE night had gathered swiftly behind a curtain of rain. Garth, glancing out the window of the train, saw that darkness was already close upon a somber and resentful world. Pines, hemlocks, and birches stretched limitlessly. The rain clung to their drooping branches like tears, so that they expressed an attitude of mourning which their color clothed convincingly. The roaring of the train was subdued, as if it hesitated to disturb the oppressive silence through which it passed.

The car, nearly empty, was insufficiently lighted. Garth answered to the growing depression of his surroundings. His paper, already well-explored, no longer held him. He continued to gaze from the window, speculating on the goal towards which he was hurrying through this bleak desolation. The inspector's phrase was suddenly informed with meaning. He was, in every sense, advancing through the dark. The realization left him with a troublesome restlessness, a desire to be actively at work.

The last streak of gray had long faded when the train drew up at Deacon's Bay station—a small building with a shed like an exaggerated collar about its throat. At this hour there was no operator on duty. Only one or two oil lamps maintained an indifferent resistance to the mist. Garth saw a horse and carriage at the rear. He walked to it.

"Could you drive me to Mr. Andrew Alden's place?" he asked.

From the depths of the carriage a native's voice replied:

"Probably you're the party I'm looking for. If you're Mr. Garth from New York, step in."

Garth obeyed, and they drove off along a road for the most part flanked by thick woods.

Without warning, through an open space, Garth saw a flame spring upward, tearing the mist and splashing the sky with wanton scarlet.

"What's that?" he asked sharply.

The glare diminished and died. The native clucked to his horse.

"Mr. Alden's furnaces," he answered.

Garth stirred.

"I see. Iron. Steel. And now it works night and day?"

"On war orders," the native answered. "Now you wouldn't think we'd ever have got in the war, would you? There's a whole town—board shacks—to take care of the men—more'n fifteen hundred of them."

Garth nodded thoughtfully. Here at the start was a condition that might make the presence of a detective comforting to his host.

As they penetrated deeper into the woods the driver exhibited an increasing desire to talk, and from time to time, Garth remarked, he glanced over his shoulder.

"None of my business," the man said, "but it's funny Mr. Alden's having company now."

Garth smiled. He was certainly on the threshold of a case he had been asked to enter wholly unprepared.

"Maybe you'll tell me why," he encouraged.

"Because," the driver answered, "although Mr. Alden stands to make a pile of money, he's paying for it in some ways. You didn't hear about his yacht?"

Garth shook his head.

"Maybe some of these rough workmen he's got up from the city, or maybe somebody wanted to pay him out. Took it out of his boathouse a few nights ago, started on a joy-ride, I suppose, and ran it on the rocks."

"Much loss?" Garth asked.

"Total, except for the furnishings."

"Are you one of Mr. Alden's servants?"

The driver's laugh was uncomfortable.

"That's what I meant about his having company. There aren't any servants except the old butler. A woman from the village goes to get breakfast and lunch for them, but she won't stay after dark."

Garth grinned, recalling the inspector's comment about spooks.

"Why did the servants quit?"

The driver glanced over his shoulder again. He hurried his horse.

"Laughing's cheap," he said, "but you can judge for yourself how lonely it is, and Mr. Alden's right on the ocean—only house for two miles. You see he owns a big piece of this coast—woods right down to the water. They've always told about a lot of soldiers being killed in those woods during the Revolution. All my life I've heard talk about seeing things there. Servants got talking a few days ago—said they saw shadows in grave clothes going through the woods. I laughed at that, too. But I didn't laugh when they found Mr. Alden's valet yesterday morning, dead as a door nail."

Garth whistled.

"Violence?"

"Not a sign. Coroner says apoplexy, but that doesn't convince anybody that doesn't want to be."

"Curious," Garth mused.

For some time a confused murmuring had increased in his ears—the persistent fury of water turned back by a rocky coast.

They turned through a gateway, and, across a broad lawn, he caught a glimpse of lights, dim, unreal, as one might picture will-o-the-wisps. But the night and the mist could not hide from Garth the size of the house, significant of wealth and a habit of comfort. That such an establishment should be practically bereft of service was sufficient proof that there was, indeed, something here to combat. Yet from the driver he could draw nothing more ponderable than the fancied return of the dead to their battlefield, and a distrust, natural enough in a native, of the horde of new men gathered for the furnaces.

When he had stepped from the carriage he saw that the lights were confined to the lower hall and one room to the left. The rest of the great house stretched away with an air of decay and abandonment.

In response to his ring he heard a step drag across the floor, but the door was not opened at once. Instead a quavering voice demanded his identity.

With some impatience Garth grasped the knob, and as he heard the carriage retreat towards the town, called out:

"My name is Garth. I'm expected."

The door was swung back almost eagerly, and Garth stepped across the threshold of the lonely house.

An old man faced him, white-haired, bent at the shoulders, unkempt and so out of key with the neat hard-wood floor, the hangings, and the wainscot of the hall—a witness to an abrupt relaxation of discipline.

"Thank heavens you've come, sir," the old man said.

"Then you know," Garth answered. "What's wrong here?"

But before the other could reply a man's voice, uncertain, barely audible, came from the lighted room to the left.

"Who is that? If it is Mr. Garth bring him to me at once."

Garth became aware of the rustling of skirts. He stepped into the room, and, scarcely within the doorway, met a young woman whose unquestionable beauty impressed him less than the trouble which, to an extent, distorted it. Her greeting, too, almost identical with the old servant's, disturbed him more than his. It was reminiscent of the desolate landscape he had seen from the train, of the forest loneliness through which he had just driven, of the gaping scarlet that had torn across the cloud-filled sky.

"I'm glad you've come. I—I was afraid you mightn't make it."

Garth's glance appraised the room. It was a huge apartment, running the width of the house. Casement windows rose from the floor to the ceiling. An oak door in the farther wall, towards the rear, was closed. There were many book-cases. A fire burned drowsily in a deep hearth. Before it stood a writing-table with an inefficient lamp, and at its side—the point where Garth's eyes halted—a man sat—huddled.

The man wore a dressing gown and slippers. His hair was untidy. From his cadaverous face eyes gleamed as if with a newly-born hope. He put his hands on the chair arms and started to rise, then, with a sigh, he sank back again.

"You'll excuse me," he said. "I've not been myself lately. It is an effort for me to get up, but I am glad to see you, Mr. Garth—very glad."

Garth understood now why the voice had barely carried to the hall. It lacked body. It left the throat reluctantly. It crowded the room with a scarcely vibrating atmosphere of dismay. Garth asked himself hotly if he had been summoned as an antidote to the airy delusions of an invalid.

A stifled sound behind him caused him to turn swiftly. He was in time to see the distortion of the woman's features increase, to watch the resistless tears sparkle in her eyes and fall, to be shamed by the laborious sobs which, after she had covered her face, shook her in freeing themselves.

He advanced, at a loss, shocked by this unforeseen breakdown. He took Alden's hand, but the other appeared to have forgotten his presence.

"Don't, Cora," he mumbled. "You mustn't do that any more. We are no longer—alone."

Garth glanced from one to the other, answering to the atmosphere of dismay, which moment by moment became more unavoidable. Yet what could there be here beyond loneliness, and, perhaps, threats from those against whose cherished principles Alden's furnaces were busy night and day? The loneliness, Garth acknowledged even then, could account for a lot, but, he decided, a doctor was needed here as much as a detective.

At last Mrs. Alden resumed her control. She faced Garth apologetically.

"It's because I can't get him away," she said wistfully. "And he's sick. Anybody can see that."

"A week or two more," Alden said, "until the works are running right. Then we'll go back to New York. I've had trouble replacing unsatisfactory workmen, and I can't make the government wait."

"New York!" the woman echoed.

"You've a doctor?" Garth asked.

"From the village," Alden answered. "I'm afraid he doesn't understand me."

"Then," Garth said firmly, "I should let the works go to blazes until I'd looked after myself."

Alden moved his hand vaguely.

"It's nothing—cold, maybe a touch of the gout. I sometimes suffer, and my nerves are a little under. Too much involved here, Mr. Garth. You couldn't afford to take chances with that."

Garth glanced at the room's luxurious furnishing.

"I couldn't," he answered captiously. "I'm not so sure about you."

It annoyed him that the lamp on the table failed to drive the shadows from the corners.

Mrs. Alden approached him timidly.

"You'll forgive our welcome? You'll try to understand? You may have noticed something about the fall in a remote place. It is very depressing here. If only you could persuade him to leave. You see we've no servants but old John. Shall I tell him to get you something—a whiskey and soda?"

Garth shook his head.

"I never drink when I'm at work."

"But you are our guest," she said.

"Our guest," came in her husband's difficult voice.

In neither of their faces could Garth read the reproof their tones had suggested. What point could there be in this abnormal masquerade?

He glanced at his watch. Mrs. Alden caught the gesture. She walked to a cabinet and measured her husband's medicine.

"It's time," she said as she gave it to him, "that we all were in bed. Shall I ring for John?"

"I'll ring," Garth answered, "a little later. I should be glad of a word with your husband."

When Mrs. Alden had gone he tried to talk sanely to the sick and melancholy man, urging him to seek more cheerful surroundings. Alden merely shook his head.

"See here," Garth exploded at last. "There's no point in your closing your confidence to me. It only makes matters a thousand times more difficult. You're afraid. Of what?"

The other answered with a difficulty that was not wholly physical. He had hit upon this incomprehensible plan and he would carry it through.

"Then it's only fair to tell you," Garth said, "that the man who drove me out talked a little. I've heard about your boat, of why your servants ran, of the strange men with whom you've crowded the village. Tell me one thing. Have you had threatening letters about your contracts?"

"Several."

The deep lines in Alden's face tightened.

"Don't think," he managed to get out, "that I'm a coward. I'll stay. My contracts will be carried through."

"No," Garth answered, "you're not that kind of a coward, but there's something else. Don't deny, Mr. Alden. You're more than sick. You're afraid. What is it?"

Alden shuddered.

"A—a coward."

The words stumbled out of his mouth.

"But I don't know what it is. You're to tell me, Mr. Garth, if it's anything."

"This rot about the woods and the spirits of dead soldiers?" Garth asked.

Alden stirred. He nodded in the direction of the rear casement windows.

"Just across the lawn."

"You haven't seen?" Garth asked sharply.

"But," Alden said, "the servants—"

This, then, Garth decided, must be the source of the fear the other's appearance recorded.

"Nonsense, Mr. Alden. That's one of the commonest superstitions the world over, that soldiers come back to the battlefields where they have died, and in time of war—"

"If there's nothing in it," Alden whispered, "why is it so common? Why did my servants swear they had seen? And the fog! We've had too much fog lately—every night for a week. My man died in the fog."

Garth whistled.

"Could they have mistaken him for you?"

"There were no marks on the body."

Alden looked up. His voice thickened.

"We are talking too much. I—I want you to stay and judge for yourself."

Garth arose and walked to the rear window, but he could see nothing for the mist. He stood there, nevertheless, for some time, puzzled and half angry. The mental and physical condition of his host, Mrs. Alden's shattered nerves, the extreme loneliness, impressed on him a sense of uncharted adventuring.

"Why," he asked himself, "won't these people talk? What do they expect me to find in this house?"

When he turned back he saw that Alden's eyes were closed. The regular rising and falling of his chest warned Garth to quietness. He would not disturb the worn-out man. So he pressed the electric bell and walked to the hall. He met John there.

"Please show me to my room," he said. "Mr. Alden's asleep. Perhaps you'd better speak to his wife before you disturb him."

John bowed and led him upstairs.

"Good-night, sir," he said, opening the door. "May you sleep well. It's a little hard here lately."

He hesitated. He cleared his throat.

"You couldn't persuade him to send his wife away?" he went on at last. "She's not strong, sir. It's pitiful."

"See here, John," Garth said impulsively. "I know it's against the rules, but tell me what's wrong here. What are you all afraid of?"

The old man's lips moved. His eyes sought Garth's urgently. With a visible effort he backed out of the room. His glance left Garth. When he opened his lips all he said was:

"Good-night, sir."

Garth closed the door, shrugging his shoulders. Of what a delicacy the threat must be to require such scrupulous handling! "If there is anything," Alden had said. Garth brought his hands together.

"There is something," he muttered, "something as dangerous as the death Alden is manufacturing back there."

He went to bed, but the restlessness of the train returned to him. Reviewing Alden's exhaustion and the old servant's significant comment, he wondered half seriously if sleep refused to enter this house. The place, even for his splendidly controlled emotions, possessed a character, depressive, unhealthy, calmly malevolent.

He had lost account of time. He had been, perhaps, on the frontier of sleep, for, as he sprang upright, he could not be all at once sure what had aroused him. A man's groan, he thought. Suddenly, tearing through the darkness, came the affirmation—a feminine scream, full of terror, abruptly ended.

He threw on his clothes, grasped his revolver, dashed down the stairs, and burst into the living-room. There was no light now beyond the wan glow of the fire, but it was still sufficient to show him Alden, huddled more than ever in the chair, and the terror that had quivered through the cry, persisted now in Alden's face.

His wife, in a dressing gown, knelt at his side, her arm around his knees. At Garth's entrance she sprang erect, facing him.

"It came," she gasped. "Oh, I knew it would. All along I've known."

"Tell me what's happened," Garth commanded.

The woman's voice was scarcely intelligible.

"I let him sleep here. Just now he groaned. I ran in. Somebody—something had attacked him. I ran in. I—I saw it."

"Where?"

She pointed to the rear window.

"I saw it going out there. It was foggy. It went in the fog. I couldn't—"

Garth sprang to the window. It was, in fact, half open. Before he could get through Mrs. Alden had caught his arm.

"Don't follow. It isn't safe out there."

"I want that man," he said.

She leaned weakly against the casement.

"But out there," she whispered, "they are not men."

Again she caught his arm.

"Don't leave me alone now that they can come in."

She pointed at her husband.

"Look at him. He saw it in the fog that came through the window. It is all fog out there. Don't leave me alone."

He thrust the revolver impatiently in her hand.

"Then take this. Not much use outside on such a night."

He jumped to the lawn and started swiftly across. Since the intruder had fled this way he might hear him in the woods, might grapple with him. He regretted the loss of his revolver, although he realized it would be useless to-night except at close quarters, and for that he possessed a cleverly-devised reserve, which he had arranged on first joining the force—a folding knife, hidden in his belt, sharp, well-tested, deadly.

At the edge of the woods he paused, straining his ears, trying to get his bearings, for he was on unfamiliar ground and the fog was very dense here. It lowered a white, translucent shroud over the nocturnal landscape. Beneath its folds he could make out only one or two tree trunks and a few drooping branches. These, as he stared, gave him the illusion of moving surreptitiously.

The moon, he knew, was at the full, but its golden rotundity was heavily veiled to-night, so that it had the forlorn, the sorrowful appearance of a lamp, once brilliant, whose flame has gradually diminished and is about to expire.

Garth could hear nothing, but he waited breathlessly, still straining his ears. This, he mused, was the place where many soldiers had died in battle, the setting for ghostly legends, the spot where the servants had fancied a terrifying and bodiless re-animation, the death-bed of Alden's valet.

Now that he had time to weigh it, Mrs. Alden's manner puzzled him. She had said it had been in the house, that now they could come in, and that out here they were not men. Had the loneliness imposed upon her intelligence such a repulsive credulity?

He had to admit that imagination in such a medium could precipitate shameful and deceptive fancies.

Then, without realizing at first why, Garth knew he had been unjust. He found his eyes striving to penetrate the night to the left. Surely it was not the old illusion of moving trees and branches that had set the fog in lazy motion over there. He stepped cautiously behind a pine tree. The chill increased. A charnal atmosphere had crept into the woods. As he shivered he realized that this sepulchral place had filled with plausible inhabitants—shapes as restless and unsubstantial as if sprung solely from a morbid somnambulism.