- CHAPTER XXVII A RECOILING VENGEANCE
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A RECOILING VENGEANCE
FROM the boat-house stretching northward, the path beside the lake shore lies open for a long distance, stretching back until the sand of the shore is merged into a grassy lawn-like slope, overlooked by the villa and going even beyond it.
On the south side of the boat-house at Redlands there is much shrubbery, and the path passing both boat-house and dwelling goes along the foot of the lawn with a line of shrubbery, almost continuous, on the upper or land side, and merging into the shade of the wood to the southward.
It is along this path that the Redlands ghost is seen to "walk," and to-night the preparations for watching are on a scale more extensive, ominous, and threatening, than any one of the avowed ghost-hunters guesses.
Aunt Cass, who has arrived before sunset, will be at her post, with or without Mrs. Hilton, as that lady may think best. Later the sheriff--informed by the spinster--has promised the "haunt" a rendezvous "quite private and single-handed," and Higgins-- | | 285 having overheard a word dropped between the two ladies--has also resolved to "have another shy at the ghastly thing." Higgins is rather sore at his former failure to capture or identify; and to-night he, too, promises to show his ghostship "a thing or two."
Neither Loyd nor Lorna are in the secret, either of last evening's appearance or to-night's plans. But Lorna to-night has a secret of her own.
A little note has reached her by the morning's mail--a note handed across the breakfast-table by Mrs. Hilton, and which Lorna read with a little thrill and shock, and then ignored, letting it pass, to the others, as of no moment.
"Miss Lorna Hilton," so runs the note. "If you would know the truth concerning both your brother and lover be at the boat-house to-night at ten o'clock, and standing in the door facing the path; stand outside, not in. You must come alone, and no one must know of your coming. The writer of this will also come alone and will tell all only on these terms.--I."
Lorna is not a physical coward, and what will she not do to know the truth--the truth which must clear Loyd, and, perhaps--how she prays for it--his friend and--her lover also. She does not hesitate a moment. It is only a short distance to the boat-house, and she would venture even further for such a purpose.
The ghost, on each and every appearance, has come from beyond the boat-house, or has vanished in that direction, fleeing past it, and up the Lakeside path, and the boat-house appears, to more than one, a point of vantage.| | 286
At twenty minutes before ten o'clock a man's figure steals softly and silently across the park-like piece of woodland which separates Redlands from the high road, and through which runs the lane, opened for the use of the Redlands inmates. Skirting the northern boundary of the lawn, he approaches the boat-house, looks up and down the path, upon which in the open moving objects would be plainly visible for a short distance, and then dropping upon his breast draws himself, with quick, snake-like motions, across the path and into the darkened boat-house, where he seems quite at home, seating himself, after a little, in the curve midway between the window-like openings between the entrances on the north or toward the shore, and the west, or upon the path.
Here, by leaning either way, he may look, without other change of position, through both openings, and here, for some time, he sits, as if waiting were a thing of habit.
It is ten minutes later, perhaps, that a woman comes slowly and with cautious tread from the side piazza of the house, and, gliding in among a thick-set group of tall white lilacs and late syringas, stands there quite concealed, and close to the path, waiting, listening, peering out from time to time.
It is just ten o'clock when Lorna Hilton, wrapped in a long storm cloak, glides out from the servants' entrance and crosses the lawn swiftly and shadow-like. She knows every foot of the way, and she does not hesitate. At the door of the boat-house she pauses, peers within, draws back with a little shudder, and takes her station just outside, as directed, her face turned westward.| | 287
There is no moon, but the sky is gemmed with stars, and the air is balmy and sweet.
As Lorna takes her place the first faint strain of music is heard, and she knows it to come from up the lake, from Lee or beyond, where a little pleasure steamer is starting out, up the lake or down, as may be, with its freight of pleasure-seekers.
"Is it going up or down?" she wonders idly, as she listens and waits, and presently her query is answered by louder strains as the boat, well in shore, comes slowly down.
How loud the music sounds now in the still night air! It would quite drown any lesser sound, such as an approaching footstep upon the sand, or--is some one coming now? Some one close at hand? She leans forward to look, with one arm twined about the pillar against which she has been leaning.
Just a moment before, the watcher among the lilacs and syringas has been startled almost into revealing herself by the sudden appearance, close to her, and just on the other side of her thicket, of a small figure encumbered with something which it deposits at the very edge of the path, against a small shrubby tree, and so close that she can almost reach out and touch it as it is being placed and arranged with such care.
Aunt Cass, for the watcher is no other, feels a little triumphant thrill as she waits. "Ah, my clever friend," she says to herself. "That was well thought of to come in through the stable-yard and across the garden, instead of down the path as usual. Are you looking for a ghost, too, I wonder, or"--she starts thinking of Lorna, whom she has | | 288 seen, and has fancied out on a ghost-hunt like herself.
Could this figure be seeking Lorna? As the newcomer steps cautiously out upon the edge of the path, Aunt Cass is thankful for the noise of the band so near them now, for, in moving to follow, she has caused the lilacs to rustle. But she is not heard; and unmindful now of the anticipated ghost, she creeps after the gliding figure just before, and going toward the boat-house.
They are very near it now, and Aunt Cass, stopping as the other stops just ahead, sees with a thrill something drawn from the breast, held up to the eye for an instant, then clasped in the ready right hand, as the figure moves on. As it is raised aloft in the uplifted hand, a gleam of light glances from it, and the spinster shudders.
Is it a pistol or a knife? She thrills with something like fear, but she keeps on, scarcely an arm's length behind the creeping figure.
Boom, boom, tum, tum, tum! goes the music. No fear of being heard now. And now the path makes a little inward curve as it circles around the boat-house on either side. But the advancing figure keeps to the lower path, going between the building and the lake; and Lorna, waiting at the landward front, sees neither the first nor the second shadow as they slowly make the circuit of the boat-house, coming around and towards the waiting girl from the further side.
But if Lorna does not see, some one else does. At least he sees the first figure as it creeps around the north-east curve of the little building and halts | | 289 an instant to raise and hold in readiness something at which he guesses, more from the gesture than from actual sight, and now the creeping figure, with hand uplifted, is at the corner. It peeps cautiously, to be assured that Lorna is still there, and then--
There is a swift spring, a cry of warning, and a quick, upward blow at the threatening arm. At the same instant Lorna feels herself snatched backward and within the boat-house, and sees two flying figures, pursuer and pursued, hearing at the same moment the tinkle of falling glass upon the stone paving of the little surrounding portiere.
"Are you hurt, Miss Hilton?" asks a man's voice breathlessly; and even as she answers No, Lorna sees him spring through the nearest archway and dash down the path. Then there is a quick exclamation, in the same voice, and she hears--
"Good heavens! are you hurt?"
"No, but that little beast, he--he threw me down, and it's no use, Mr. Cook, he's off on his wheel. Let's look after Lorna. He must have meant harm to her. What was it?"
They are at the entrance now, and Lorna meets them there.
"What is it?" she asks, and at the moment there rings out a shriek of fear, or pain, or both; and at the same time a loud shout as of triumph.
"Stay here! Be careful! It was vitriol, I think!" With the words on his lips the sheriff is off in the direction of the sound.
Higgins has done his work well. At the point | | 290 where the lawn merges into the wood, beyond and southward, the shore extends outward like a tiny cape; and here a group of trees has been cut through to open the path, so that at this point the shadows are dense across the way where the branches meet overhead.
It is the only spot so covered, and here Higgins, heedless of possible consequences, and eager only "to catch the ghost," has set his trap and has succeeded beyond his highest hopes.
Across the path, from tree to tree, he has stretched a tennis net. "Now then," he says to himself, "let it come a-sailin' along. If it's a live thing that'll stop it," and it did.
Having placed his net, he has taken his station behind a tree, with a lantern, lighted and covered with a blanket, close at his feet, and when the sheriff reaches the place, he finds the man bending over a form lying in a horribly cramped position, and motionless upon the ground, the light of his uplifted lantern showing a pallid face, a boyish figure, and a wrecked bicycle, all entangled in a torn tennis net, which well-nigh brings the sheriff to his knees, as he comes hurrying on. At the next moment Loyd Hilton, with a second lantern, comes running up.
Being men of nerve, they waste no words. The boy lies close to the foot of a tree, and when they lift him the blood trickles from a cut in the temple.
There is but one thing to do, and it is promptly done. They lift the lifeless form, and send Higgins--frightened now, and ashamed, after a sharp reprimand from his master--running ahead to prepare the way.
As they bear their burden gently forward, Lorna and Aunt Cass come panting upland as the rays from Loyd's lantern fall full upon the still face, the spinster starts, looks closer, and, suddenly turning, hurries Lorna on.
A moment later she meets them at the steps alone.
"Give me your lantern, Loyd," she says firmly, "and put him down a moment upon the divan while you go and care for Lorna. I have sent her to the kitchen on an errand, and you must not let her come back here until-" she glances down at the pale face. "Be careful!" she adds as they enter the door.
"Take him to my room," Loyd says, as they place their burden upon the hall divan for the moment, "and send some one for Jarvis at once."
As he turns away Mrs. Hilton hurries toward them.
"What is it?" she asks, but Aunt Cass, who has pushed Loyd away from the divan and hurried him after Lorna, now turns and says to the sheriff, "Stand back," and ignoring for the moment Mrs. Hilton and her query, she kneels beside the divan, looks closely into the white face, and thrusts her fingers through the thick, close, clustering hair. Then she rises and loosens the collar of the négligé shirt.
"Mrs. Hilton," she says, turning suddenly, and suddenly becomes the cool commander. "You will have to give this poor soul another room, not Loyd's, and--call your woman. This"-pointing to the prostrate figure--"is--a woman."
"A--woman!" For the moment Mrs. Hilton | | 292 has lost her gentle self-control. "Do you mean--a woman--and--the ghost?"
And now Miss Cassandra feels a touch of the "nerves."
"The ghost? Yes. She is the ghost! She has just tried to kill Lorna, or destroy her beauty with vitriol. She is also, I believe, the owner of the face of Lorna's dreams and visions. But--she has been half, or wholly, killed by your servant's trap, and--she is a woman!"
"Come!" Mrs. Hilton turns and leads the way upstairs, while the sheriff, after one glance toward Aunt Cass, lifts the slight figure, obedient to her signal, and carries it to the dainty chamber, at the door of which the two women stand waiting.
"The heart still beats," he says, when he has placed his burden upon the bed and examined it with quick, intelligent touch and glance, "and there is a weak pulse. Now for Doctor Jarvis."
"One moment." Aunt Cass turns from one to the other. "Loyd and Lorna must not be admitted--must not know--yet. And--I will take charge of this girl--at least, until the doctor comes. Let there be no talk. I believe the key to our mystery lies there," and she points toward the bed.
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