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- Openings in the Old Trail - 35/35 -
by him in his forecast of the future of Excelsior--a dream of some fair partner in his life, after this task was accomplished, yet always of some one moving in a larger world than his youth had known. Rousing the half sleeping porter, he found, however, only the spectral gold-seeker in the vestibule,--the rays of his solitary candle falling upon her divining-rod with a quaint persistency that seemed to point to the stairs he was ascending. When he reached the first landing the rising wind through an open window put out his light, but, although the staircase was in darkness, he could see the long corridor above illuminated by the moonlight throughout its whole length. He had nearly reached it when the slow but unmistakable rustle of a dress in the distance caught his ear. He paused, not only in the interest of delicacy, but with a sudden nervous thrill he could not account for. The rustle came nearer--he could hear the distinct frou-frou of satin; and then, to his bewildered eyes, what seemed to be the figure of the dummy, arrayed in the pale blue evening dress he knew so well, passed gracefully and majestically down the corridor. He could see the shapely folds of the skirt, the symmetry of the bodice, even the harmony of the trimmings. He raised his eyes, half affrightedly, prepared to see the headless shoulders, but they--and what seemed to be a head--were concealed in a floating "cloud" or nubia of some fleecy tissue, as if for protection from the evening air. He remained for an instant motionless, dazed by this apparent motion of an inanimate figure; but as the absurdity of the idea struck him he hurriedly but stealthily ascended the remaining stairs, resolved to follow it. But he was only in time to see it turn into the angle of another corridor, which, when he had reached it, was empty. The figure had vanished!
His first thought was to go to the committee room and examine the locked closet. But the key was in his desk at home, he had no light, and the room was on the other side of the house. Besides, he reflected that even the detection of the figure would involve the exposure of the very secret they had kept intact so long. He sought his bedroom, and went quietly to bed. But not to sleep; a curiosity more potent than any sense of the trespass done him kept him tossing half the night. Who was this woman whom the clothes fitted so well? He reviewed in his mind the guests in the house, but he knew none who could have carried off this masquerade so bravely.
In the morning early he made his way to the committee room, but as he approached was startled to observe two pairs of boots, a man's and a woman's, conjugally placed before its door. Now thoroughly indignant, he hurried to the office, and was confronted by the face of the fair secretary. She colored quickly on seeing him--but the reason was obvious.
"You are coming to scold me, sir! But it is not my fault. We were full yesterday afternoon when your friend from San Francisco came here with his wife. We told him those were YOUR rooms, but he said he would make it right with you--and my father thought you would not be displeased for once. Everything of yours was put into another room, and the closet remains locked as you left it."
Amazed and bewildered, the president could only mutter a vague apology and turn away. Had his friend's wife opened the door with another key in some fit of curiosity and disported herself in those clothes? If so, she DARE not speak of her discovery.
An introduction to the lady at breakfast dispelled this faint hope. She was a plump woman, whose generous proportions could hardly have been confined in that pale blue bodice; she was frank and communicative, with no suggestion of mischievous concealment.
Nevertheless, he made a firm resolution. As soon as his friends left he called a meeting of the committee. He briefly informed them of the accidental occupation of the room, but for certain reasons of his own said nothing of his ghostly experience. But he put it to them plainly that no more risks must be run, and that he should remove the dresses and dummy to his own house. To his considerable surprise this suggestion was received with grave approval and a certain strange relief.
"We kinder thought of suggesting it to you before," said Mr. Trigg slowly, "and that mebbe we've played this little game long enough-- for suthin's happened that's makin' it anything but funny. We'd have told you before, but we dassent! Speak out, Clint, and tell the president what we saw the other night, and don't mince matters."
The president glanced quickly and warningly around him. "I thought," he said sternly, "that we'd dropped all fooling. It's no time for practical joking now!"
"Honest Injun--it's gospel truth! Speak up, Clint!"
The president looked on the serious faces around him, and was himself slightly awed.
"It's a matter of two or three nights ago," said Grey slowly, "that Trigg and I were passing through Sycamore Woods, just below the hotel. It was after twelve--bright moonlight, so that we could see everything as plain as day, and we were dead sober. Just as we passed under the sycamores Trigg grabs my arm, and says, 'Hi!' I looked up, and there, not ten yards away, standing dead in the moonlight, was that dummy! She was all in white--that dress with the fairy frills, you know--and had, what's more, A HEAD! At least, something white all wrapped around it, and over her shoulders. At first we thought you or some of the boys had dressed her up and lifted her out there for a joke, and left her to frighten us! So we started forward, and then--it's the gospel truth!--she MOVED AWAY, gliding like the moonbeams, and vanished among the trees!"
"Did you see her face?" asked the president.
"No; you bet! I didn't try to--it would have haunted me forever."
"What do you mean?"
"This--I mean it was that GIRL THE BOX BELONGED TO! She's dead somewhere--as you'll find out sooner or later--AND HAS COME BACK FOR HER CLOTHES! I've often heard of such things before."
Despite his coolness, at this corroboration of his own experience, and impressed by Grey's unmistakable awe, a thrill went through the president. For an instant he was silent.
"That will do, boys," he said finally. "It's a queer story; but remember, it's all the more reason now for our keeping our secret. As for those things, I'll remove them quietly and at once."
But he did not.
On the contrary, prolonging his stay at the hotel with plausible reasons, he managed to frequently visit the committee room or its vicinity, at different and unsuspected hours of the day and night. More than that, he found opportunities to visit the office, and under pretexts of business connected with the economy of the hotel management, informed himself through Miss Marsh on many points. A few of these details naturally happened to refer to herself, her prospects, her tastes, and education. He learned incidentally, what he had partly known, that her father had been in better circumstances, and that she had been gently nurtured--though of this she made little account in her pride in her own independence and devotion to her duties. But in his own persistent way he also made private notes of the breadth of her shoulders, the size of her waist, her height, length of her skirt, her movements in walking, and other apparently extraneous circumstances. It was natural that he acquired some supplemental facts,--that her eyes, under her eye- glasses, were a tender gray, and touched with the melancholy beauty of near-sightedness; that her face had a sensitive mobility beyond the mere charm of color, and like most people lacking this primitive and striking element of beauty, what was really fine about her escaped the first sight. As, for instance, it was only by bending over to examine her accounts that he found that her indistinctive hair was as delicate as floss silk and as electrical. It was only by finding her romping with the children of a guest one evening that he was startled by the appalling fact of her youth! But about this time he left the hotel and returned to his house.
On the first yearly anniversary of the great strike at Excelsior there were some changes in the settlement, notably the promotion of Mr. Marsh to a more important position in the company, and the installation of Miss Cassie Marsh as manageress of the hotel. As Miss Marsh read the official letter, signed by the president, conveying in complimentary but formal terms this testimony of their approval and confidence, her lip trembled slightly, and a tear trickling from her light lashes dimmed her eye-glasses, so that she was fain to go up to her room to recover herself alone. When she did so she was startled to find a wire dummy standing near the door, and neatly folded upon the bed two elegant dresses. A note in the president's own hand lay beside them. A swift blush stung her cheek as she read,--
DEAR MISS MARSH,--Will you make me happy by keeping the secret that no other woman but yourself knows, and by accepting the clothes that no other woman but yourself can wear?
The next moment, with the dresses over her arm and the ridiculous dummy swinging by its wires from her other hand, she was flying down the staircase to Committee Room No. 4. The door opened upon its sole occupant, the president.
"Oh, sir, how cruel of you!" she gasped. "It was only a joke of mine. . . . I always intended to tell you. . . . It was very foolish, but it seemed so funny. . . . You see, I thought it was . . . the dress you had bought for your future intended--some young lady you were going to marry!"
"It is!" said the president quietly, and he closed the door behind her.
And it was.
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