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- Dark Hollow - 4/55 -
Why this instinctive move? She could not tell. Impulse prevailed, and without a thought she flew into Judge Ostrander's presence, and, gazing wildly about, wormed her way towards a heavily carved screen guarding a distant corner, and cowered down behind it.
What awaited her?
What awaited the judge?
As the little woman shook with terror in her secret hiding-place she felt that she had played him false; that she had no right to save herself by the violation of a privacy she should have held in awe. She was paying for her temerity now, paying for it with every terrible moment that her suspense endured. The gasping, struggling men, the frantic negro, were in the next room now--she could catch the sound of the latter's panting breath rising above the clamour of strange entreaties and excited cries with which the air was full; then a quick, hoarse shout of "Judge! Judge!" rose in the doorway, and she became conscious of the presence of a headlong, rushing force struck midway into silence as the frozen figure of his master flashed upon the negro's eyes;--then,--a growl of concentrated emotion, uttered almost in her ear, and the screen which had been her refuge was violently thrust away from before her, and in its place she beheld a terrible being standing over her, in whose eyes, dilating under this fresh surprise, she beheld her doom, even while recognising that if she must suffer it would be simply as an obstacle to some goal at her back which he must reach--now--before he fell in his blood and died.
What was this goal? As she felt herself lifted, nay, almost hurled aside, she turned to see and found it to be a door before which the devoted Bela had now thrown himself, guarding it with every inch of his powerful but rapidly sinking body, and chattering defiance with his bloodless, quivering lips--a figure terrible in anger, sublime in purpose, and piteous in its failing energies.
"Back! all of you!" he cried, and stopped, clutching at the door- casing on either side to hold himself erect. "You cannot come in here. This is the judge's--"
Not even his iron resolve or once unequalled physique could stand the sapping of the terrible gash which disfigured his forehead. He had been run over by an automobile in a moment of blind abstraction, and his hurt was mortal. But though his tongue refused to finish, his eye still possessed its power to awe and restrain. Though the crowd had followed him almost into the centre of the room, they felt themselves held back by the spirit of this man, who as long as he lived and breathed would hold himself a determined barrier between them and what he had been set to guard.
As long as he lived and breathed. Alas! that would be but a little while now. Already his head, held erect by the passion of his purpose, was sinking on his breast; already his glazing eye was losing its power of concentration, when with a final rally of his decaying strength, he started erect again and cried out in terrible appeal:
"I have disobeyed the judge, and, as you see, it has killed him. Do not make me guilty of giving away his secret. Swear that you will leave this door unpassed; swear that no one but his son shall ever turn this lock; or I will haunt you, I, Bela, man by man, till you sink in terror to your graves. Swear! sw--"
The last adjuration ended in a moan. His head fell forward again and in that intense moment of complete silence they could hear the splash of his life-blood as it dropped from his forehead on to the polished boards beneath; then he threw up his arms and fell in a heap to the floor.
They had not been driven to answer. Wherever that great soul had gone, his ears were no longer open to mortal promise, nor would any oath from the lip of man avail to smooth his way into the shadowy unknown.
"Dead!" broke from little Miss Weeks as she flung herself down in reckless abandonment at his side. She had never known an agitation beyond some fluttering woman's hope she had stifled as soon as born, and now she knelt in blood. "Dead!" she again repeated. And there was no one this time to cry: "You need not be frightened; in a few minutes he will be himself again." The master might reawaken to life, but never more the man.
A solemn hush, then a mighty sigh of accumulated emotion swept from lip to lip, and the crowd of later invaders, already abashed if not terrified by the unexpected spectacle of suspended animation which confronted them from the judge's chair, shrank tumultuously back as little Miss Weeks advanced upon them, holding out her meagre arms in late defence of the secret to save which she had just seen a man die.
"Let us do as he wished," she prayed. "I feel myself much to blame. What right had we to come in here?"
"The fellow was hurt. We were just bringing him home," spoke up a voice, rough with the surprise of unaccustomed feeling. "If he had let us carry him, he might have been alive this minute; but he would run and struggle to keep us back. He says he killed his master. If so, his death is a retribution. Don't you say so, fellows? The judge was a good man---"
"Hush! hush! the judge is all right," admonished one of the party; "he'll be waking up soon"; and then, as every eye flew in fresh wonder towards the chair and its impassive occupant, the low whisper was heard,--no one ever could tell from whose lips it fell: "If we are ever to know this wonderful secret, now is the time, before he wakes and turns us out of the house."
No one in authority was present; no one representing the law, not even a doctor; only haphazard persons from the street and a few neighbours who had not been on social terms with the judge for years and never expected to be so again. His secret!--always a source of wonder to every inhabitant of Shelby, but lifted now into a matter of vital importance by the events of the day and the tragic death of the negro! Were they to miss its solution, when only a door lay between it and them--a door which they might not even have to unlock? If the judge should rouse,--if from a source of superstitious terror he became an active one, how pat their excuse might be. They were but seeking a proper place--a couch--a bed--on which to lay the dead man. They had been witness to his hurt; they had been witness to his death, and were they to leave him lying in his blood, to shock the eyes of his master when he came out of his long swoon? No tongue spoke these words, but the cunning visible in many an eye and the slight start made by more than one eager foot in the direction of the forbidden door gave Miss Weeks sufficient warning of what she might expect in another moment. Making the most of her diminutive figure,--such a startling contrast to the one which had just dominated there!--she was about to utter an impassioned appeal to their honour, when the current of her and their thoughts, as well as the direction of all looks, was changed by a sudden sense common to all, of some strange new influence at work in the room, and turning, they beheld the judge upon his feet, his mind awakened, but his eyes still fixed--an awesome figure; some thought more awesome than before; for the terror which still held him removed from all about, was no longer passive but active and had to do with what no man there could understand or alleviate. Death was present with them--he saw it not. Strangers were making havoc with his solitude--he was as oblivious of their presence as he had been unconscious of it before. His faculties and all his attention were absorbed by the thought which had filled his brain when the cogs of that subtle mechanism had slipped and his faculties paused inert.
This was shown by his first question:
"WHERE IS THE WOMAN?"
It was a cry of fear; not of mastery.
"AND WHERE WAS I WHEN ALL THIS HAPPENED?"
The intensity of the question, the compelling, self-forgetful passion of the man, had a startling effect upon the crowd of people huddled before him. With one accord, and without stopping to pick their way, they made for the open doorway, knocking the smaller pieces of furniture about and creating havoc generally. Some fled the house; others stopped to peer in again from behind the folds of the curtain which had been only partially torn from its fastenings. Miss Weeks was the only one to stand her ground.
When the room was quite cleared and the noise abated (it was a frightful experience to see how little the judge had been affected by all this hubbub of combined movement and sound), she stepped within the line of his vision and lifted her feeble and ineffectual hand in an effort to attract his attention to herself.
But he did not notice her, any more than he had noticed the others. Still looking in the one direction, he cried aloud in troubled tones:
"She stood there! the woman stood there and I saw her! Where is she now?"
"She is no longer in the house," came in gentle reply from the only one in or out of the room courageous enough to speak. "She went out when she saw us coming. We knew that she had no right to be here. That is why we intruded ourselves, sir. We did not like the looks of her, and so followed her in to prevent mischief."
The expletive fell unconsciously. He seemed to be trying to adjust himself to some mental experience he could neither share with others nor explain to himself.
"She was here, then?--a woman with a little child? It wasn't an illusion, a--." Memory was coming back and with it a realisation of his position. Stopping short, he gazed down from his great height upon the trembling little body of whose identity he had but a vague idea, and thundered out in great indignation:
"How dared you! How dared she!" Then as his mind regained its full poise, "And how, even if you had the temerity to venture an entrance here, did you manage to pass my gates? They are never
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