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Though past seventy, Uncle David was a brisk walker, and on this night in particular he sped along so fast that he was half-way down H Street by the time I had turned the corner at New Hampshire Avenue.
His gaunt but not ungraceful figure, merged in that of the dog trotting closely at his heels, was the only moving object in the dreary vista of this the most desolate block in Washington. As I neared the building, I was so impressed by the surrounding stillness that I was ready to vow that the shadows were denser here than elsewhere and that the few gas lamps, which flickered at intervals down the street, shone with a more feeble ray than in any other equal length of street in Washington.
Meanwhile, the shadow of Uncle David had vanished from the pavement. He had paused beside a fence which, hung with vines, surrounded and nearly hid from sight the little cottage he had mentioned as the only house on the block with the exception of the great Moore place; in other words, his own home.
As I came abreast of him I heard him muttering, not to his dog as was his custom, but to himself. In fact, the dog was not to be seen, and this desertion on the part of his constant companion seemed to add to his disturbance and affect him beyond all reason. I could distinguish these words amongst the many he directed toward the unseen animal:
"You're a knowing one, too knowing! You see that loosened shutter over the way as plainly as I do; but you're a coward to slink away from it. I don't. I face the thing, and what's more, I'll show you yet what I think of a dog that can't stand his ground and help his old master out with some show of courage. Creaks, does it? Well, let it creak! I don't mind its creaking, glad as I should be to know whose hand--Halloo! You've come, have you?" This to me. I had just stepped up to him.
"Yes, I've come. Now what is the matter with the Moore house?"
He must have expected the question, yet his answer was a long time coming. His voice, too, sounded strained, and was pitched quite too high to be natural. But he evidently did not expect me to show surprise at his manner.
"Look at that window over there!" he cried at last. "That one with the slightly open shutter! Watch and you will see that shutter move. There! it creaked; didn't you hear it?"
A growl--it was more like a moan--came from the porch behind us. Instantly the old gentleman turned and with a gesture as fierce as it was instinctive, shouted out:
"Be still there! If you haven't the courage to face a blowing shutter, keep your jaws shut and don't let every fellow who happens along know what a fool you are. I declare," he maundered on, half to himself and half to me, "that dog is getting old. He can't be trusted any more. He forsakes his master just when -" The rest was lost in his throat which rattled with something more than impatient anger.
Meanwhile I had been attentively scrutinizing the house thus pointedly brought to my notice.
I had seen it many times before, but, as it happened, had never stopped to look at it when the huge trees surrounding it were shrouded in darkness. The black hollow of its disused portal looked out from shadows which acquired some of their somberness from the tragic memories connected with its empty void.
Its aspect was scarcely reassuring. Not that superstition lent its terrors to the lonely scene, but that through the blank panes of the window, alternately appearing and disappearing from view as the shutter pointed out by Uncle David blew to and fro in the wind, I saw, or was persuaded that I saw, a beam of light which argued an unknown presence within walls which had so lately been declared unfit for any man's habitation.
"You are right," I now remarked to the uneasy figure at my side. "Some one is prowling through the house yonder. Can it possibly be Mrs. Jeffrey or her husband?"
"At night and with no gas in the house? Hardly."
The words were natural, but the voice was not. Neither was his manner quite suited to the occasion. Giving him another sly glance, and marking how uneasily he edged away from me in the darkness, I cried out more cheerily than he possibly expected:
"I will summon another officer and we three will just slip across and investigate."
"Not I!" was his violent rejoinder, as he swung open a gate concealed in the vines behind him. "The Jeffreys would resent my intrusion if they ever happened to hear of it."
"Indeed!" I laughed, sounding my whistle; then, soberly enough, for I was more than a little struck by the oddity of his behavior and thought him as well worth investigation as the house in which he showed such an interest: "You shouldn't let that count. Come and see what's up in the house you are so ready to call yours."
But he only drew farther into the shade.
"I have no business over there," he objected. "Veronica and I have never been on good terms. I was not even invited to her wedding though I live within a stone's throw of the door. No; I have done my duty in calling attention to that light, and whether it's the bull's-eye of a burglar--perhaps you don't know that there are rare treasures on the book shelves of the great library--or whether it is the fantastic illumination which frightens fool-folks and some fool-dogs, I'm done with it and done with you, too, for to-night."
As he said this, he mounted to his door and disappeared under the vines, hanging like a shroud over the front of the house. In another moment the rich peal of an organ sounded from within, followed by the prolonged howling of Rudge, who, either from a too keen appreciation of his master's music or in utter disapproval of it,--no one, I believe, has ever been able to make out which,--was accustomed to add this undesirable accompaniment to every strain from the old man's hand. The playing did not cease because of these outrageous discords. On the contrary, it increased in force and volume, causing Rudge's expression of pain or pleasure to increase also. The result can be imagined. As I listened to the intolerable howls of the dog cutting clean through the exquisite harmonies of his master, I wondered if the shadows cast by the frowning structure of the great Moore house were alone to blame for Uncle David's lack of neighbors.
Meantime, Hibbard, who was the first to hear my signal, came running down the block. As he joined me, the light, or what we chose to call a light, appeared again in the window toward which my attention had been directed.
"Some one's in the Moore house!" I declared, in as matter of-fact tones as I could command.
Hibbard is a big fellow, the biggest fellow on the force, and so far as my own experience with him had gone, as stolid and imperturbable as the best of us. But after a quick glance at the towering walls of the lonely building, he showed decided embarrassment and seemed in no haste to cross the street.
With difficulty I concealed my disgust.
"Come," I cried, stepping down from the curb, "let's go over and investigate. The property is valuable, the furnishings handsome, and there is no end of costly books on the library shelves. You have matches and a revolver?"
He nodded, quietly showing me first the one, then the other; then with a sheepish air which he endeavored to carry of with a laugh, he cried:
"Have you use for 'em? If so, I'm quite willing, to part with 'em for a half-hour."
I was more than amazed at this evidence of weakness in one I had always considered as tough and impenetrable as flint rock. Thrusting back the hand with which he had half drawn into view the weapon I had mentioned, I put on my sternest sir and led the way across the street. As I did so, tossed back the words:
"We may come upon a gang. You do not wish me to face some half-dozen men alone?"
"You won't find any half-dozen men there," was his muttered reply. Nevertheless he followed me, though with less spirit than I liked, considering that my own manner was in a measure assumed and that I was not without sympathy--well, let me, say, for a dog who preferred howling a dismal accompaniment to his master's music, to keeping open watch over a neighborhood dominated by the unhallowed structure I now propose to enter.
The house is too well known for me to attempt a minute description of it. The illustrations which have appeared in all the papers have already acquainted the general public with its simple facade and rows upon rows of shuttered windows. Even the great square porch with its bench for negro attendants has been photographed for the million. Those who have seen the picture in which the wedding-guests are shown flying from its yawning doorway, will not be especially interested in the quiet, almost solemn aspect it presented as I passed up the low steps and laid my hand upon the knob of the old-fashioned front door.
Not that I expected to win an entrance thereby, but because it is my nature to approach everything in a common-sense way. Conceive then my astonishment when at the first touch the door yielded. It was not even latched.
"So! so!" thought I. "This is no fool's job; some one is in the house."
I had provided myself with an ordinary pocket-lantern, and, when I had convinced Hibbard that I fully meant to enter the house and discover for myself who had taken advantage of the popular prejudice against it to make a secret refuge or rendezvous of its decayed old rooms, I took out this lantern and held it in readiness.
"We may strike a hornets' nest," I explained to Hibbard, whose feet seemed very heavy even for a man of his size. "But I'm going in and so are you. Only, let me suggest that we first take off our shoes. We can hide them in these bushes."
"I always catch cold when I walk barefooted," mumbled my brave companion; but receiving no reply he drew off his shoes and dropped them beside mine in the cluster of stark bushes which figure so prominently in the illustrations that I have just mentioned. Then he took out his revolver, and cocking it, stood waiting, while I gave a cautious push to the door.
Rather had I confronted a light and heard some noise, even if it had been the ominous click to which eve are so well accustomed. Hibbard seemed to share my feelings, though from an entirely different cause.
"Pistols and lanterns are no good here," he grumbled. "What we want at this blessed minute is a priest with a sprinkling of holy water; and I for one -"
He was actually sliding off.
With a smothered oath I drew him back.
"See here!" I cried, "you're not a babe in arms. Come on or--Well, what now?"
He had clenched my arm and was pointing to the door which was slowly swaying to behind us.
"Notice that," he whispered. "No key in the lock! Men use keys but -"
My patience could stand no more. With a shake I rid myself of his clutch, muttering:
"There, go! You're too much of a fool for me. I'm in for it alone." And in proof of my determination, I turned the slide of the lantern and flashed the light through the house.
The effect was ghostly; but while the fellow at my side breathed hard he did not take advantage of my words to make his escape, as I half expected him to. Perhaps, like myself, he was fascinated by the dreary spectacle of long shadowy walls and an equally shadowy staircase emerging from a darkness which a minute before had seemed impenetrable. Perhaps he was simply ashamed. At all events he stood his ground, scrutinizing with rolling eyes that portion of the hall where two columns, with gilded Corinthian capitals, marked the door of the room which no man entered without purpose or passed without dread. Doubtless he was thinking of that which had so frequently been carried out between those columns. I know that I was; and when, in the sudden draft made by the open door, some open draperies hanging near those columns blew out with a sudden swoop and shiver, I was not at all astonished to see him lose what little courage had remained in him. The truth is, I was startled myself, but I was able to hide the fact and to whisper back to him, fiercely:
"Don't be an idiot. That curtain hides nothing worse than some sneaking political refugee or a gang of counterfeiters."
"Maybe. I'd just like to put my hand on Upson and -"
I had just heard something.
For a moment we stood breathless, but as the sound was not repeated I concluded that it was the creaking of that far-away shutter. Certainly there was nothing moving near us.
"Shall we go upstairs?" whispered Hibbard.
"Not till we have made sure that all is right down here"
A door stood slightly ajar on our left.
Pushing it open, we looked in. A well furnished parlor was before us.
"Here's where the wedding took place," remarked Hibbard, straining his head over my shoulder.
There were signs of this wedding on every side. Walls and ceilings had been hung with garlands, and these still clung to the mantelpiece and over and around the various doorways. Torn-off branches and the remnants of old bouquets, dropped from the hands of flying guests, littered the carpet, adding to the general confusion of overturned chairs and tables. Everywhere were evidences of the haste with which the place had been vacated as well as the superstitious dread which had prevented it being re-entered for the commonplace purpose of cleaning. Even the piano had not been shut, and under it lay some scattered sheets of music which had been left where they fell, to the probable loss of some poor musician. The clock occupying the center of the mantelpiece alone gave evidence of life. It had been wound for the wedding and had not yet run down. Its tick-tick came faint enough, however, through the darkness, as if it too had lost heart and would soon lapse into the deadly quiet of its ghostly surroundings.
"It's it's funeral-like," chattered Hibbard.
He was right; I felt as if I were shutting the lid of a coffin when I finally closed the door.
Our next steps took us into the rear where we found little to detain us, and then, with a certain dread fully justified by the event, we made for the door defined by the two Corinthian columns.
It was ajar like the rest, and, call me coward or call me fool--I have called Hibbard both, you will remember--I found that it cost me an effort to lay my hand on its mahogany panels. Danger, if danger there was, lurked here; and while I had never known myself to quail before any ordinary antagonist, I, like others of my kind, have no especial fondness for unseen and mysterious perils.
Hibbard, who up to this point had followed me almost too closely, now accorded me all the room that was necessary. It was with a sense of entering alone upon the scene that I finally thrust wide the door and crossed the threshold of this redoubtable room where, but two short weeks before, a fresh victim had been added to the list of those who had by some unheard-of, unimaginable means found their death within its recesses.
My first glance showed me little save the ponderous outlines of an old settle, which jutted from the corner of the fireplace half way out into the room. As it was seemingly from this seat that the men, who at various times had been found lying here, had fallen to their doom, a thrill passed over me as I noted its unwieldy bulk and the deep shadow it threw on the ancient and dishonored hearthstone. To escape the ghastly memories it evoked and also to satisfy myself that the room was really as empty as it seemed, I took another step forward. This caused the light from the lantern I carried to spread beyond the point on which it had hitherto been so effectively concentrated; but the result was to emphasize rather than detract from the extreme desolation of the great room. The settle was a fixture, as I afterwards found, and was almost the only article of furniture to be seen on the wide expanse of uncarpeted floor. There was a table or two in hiding somewhere amid the shadows at the other end from where I stood, and possibly some kind of stool or settee; but the general impression made upon me was that of a completely dismantled place given over to moth and rust.
I do not include the walls. They were not bare like the floor, but covered with books from floor to ceiling. These books were not the books of to-day; they had stood so long in their places unnoted and untouched, that they had acquired the color of fungus, and smelt - Well, there is no use adding to the picture. Every one knows the spirit of sickening desolation pervading rooms which have been shut up for an indefinite length of time from air and sunshine.
The elegance of the heavily stuccoed ceiling, admitted to be one of the finest specimens of its kind in Washington, as well as the richness of the carvings ornamenting the mantel of Italian marble rising above the accursed hearthstone, only served to make more evident the extreme neglect into which the rest of the room had sunk. Being anything but anxious to subject myself further to its unhappy influence and quite convinced that the place was indeed as empty as it looked, I turned to leave, when my eyes fell upon something so unexpected and so extraordinary, seen as it was under the influence of the old tragedies with which my mind was necessarily full, that I paused, balked in my advance, and well-nigh uncertain whether I looked upon a real thing or on some strange and terrible fantasy of my aroused imagination.
A form lay before me, outstretched on that portion of the floor which had hitherto been hidden from me by the half-open door--a woman's form, which even in that first casual look impressed itself upon me as one of aerial delicacy and extreme refinement; and this form lay as only the dead lie; the dead! And I had been looking at the hearthstone for just such a picture! No, not just such a picture, for this woman lay face uppermost, and, on the floor beside her was blood.
A hand had plucked my sleeve. It was Hibbard's. Startled by my immobility and silence, he had stepped in with quaking members, expecting he hardly knew what. But no sooner did his eyes fall on the prostrate form which held me spellbound, than an unforeseen change took place in him. What had unnerved me, restored him to full self-possession. Death in this shape was familiar to him. He had no fear of blood. He did not show surprise at encountering it, but only at the effect it appeared to produce on me.
"Shot!" was his laconic comment as he bent over the prostrate body. "Shot through the heart! She must have died before she fell."
That was a new experience for this room. No wound had ever before disfigured those who had fallen here, nor had any of the previous victims been found lying on any other spot than the one over which that huge settle kept guard. As these thoughts crossed my mind, I instinctively glanced again toward the fireplace for what I almost refused to believe lay outstretched at my feet. When nothing more appeared there than that old seat of sinister memory, I experienced a thrill which poorly prepared me for the cry which I now heard raised by Hibbard.
"Look here! What do you make of this?"
He was pointing to what, upon closer inspection, proved to be a strip of white satin ribbon running from one of the delicate wrists of the girl before us to the handle of a pistol which had fallen not far away from her side. "It looks as if the pistol was attached to her. That is something new in my experience. What do you think it means?"
Alas! there was but one thing it could mean. The shot to which she had succumbed had been delivered by herself. This fair and delicate creature was a suicide.
But suicide in this place! How could we account for that? Had the story of this room's ill-acquired fame acted hypnotically on her, or had she stumbled upon the open door in front and been glad of any refuge where her misery might find a solitary termination? Closely scanning her upturned face, I sought an answer to this question, and while thus seeking received a fresh shock which I did not hesitate to communicate to my now none-too-sensitive companion.
"Look at these features," I cried. "I seem to know them, do you?"
He growled out a dissent, but stooped at my bidding and gave the pitiful young face a pro longed stare. When he looked up again it was with a puzzled contraction of his eyebrows.
"I've certainly seen it somewhere," he hesitatingly admitted, edging slowly away toward the door. "Perhaps in the papers. Isn't she like -?"
"Like!" I interrupted, "it is Veronica Moore herself; the owner of this house and she who was married here two weeks since to Mr. Jeffrey. Evidently her reason was unseated by the tragedy which threw so deep a gloom over her wedding."
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