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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Debtor: A Novel - Chapter 38
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The Debtor: A Novel - Chapter 38 Post by :aarce Category :Long Stories Author :Mary E Wilkins Freeman Date :May 2012 Read :942

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The Debtor: A Novel - Chapter 38

Chapter XXXVIII

There is, to a human being of Charlotte Carroll's type, something unutterably terrifying about entering, especially at nightfall, an entirely empty house. The worst of it is it does not seem to be empty. In reality, the emptiness of it is the last thing which is comprehended. It is full to overflowing with terrors, with spiritual entities which are much more palpable, when one is in a certain mood, than actual physical presences. Charlotte approaching the house, saw, first, glimmers of light on the windows, which were merely reflections ostensibly from the electric light in the street, not so ostensibly from other lights.

"Oh, there is some one in there," Charlotte thought to herself, and again that horrible, pulsing, vibrating motion of her heart overcame her. "Who is there?" she asked herself. She remembered that terrible tramp whom she had seen asleep in the woods that day. He might have been riding on some freight-train which had stopped at Banbridge, and stolen across and entered the vacant house. She stood still, staring at the cold glimmers on the windows. Then gradually she became convinced that they were merely reflections which she saw. Aside from her imagination, Charlotte was not entirely devoid of a certain bravery, or, rather, of a certain reason which came to her rescue. "What a little goose I am!" she told herself. "Those are only reflections. They are the reflections of the light in the street." As she studied it more closely she saw that the light, being intercepted by the branches of the trees on the lawn, swaying in a light wind, produced some of the strange effects at the windows which had seemed like people moving back and forth in the rooms. Then all at once she saw another glimmer of light on the front window of her father's room which she could not account for at all. She moved in front of a long, fan-shaped ray cast by the electric light in the street, and, looking at the window, the reflection was still there. She could not account for that at all, unless it was produced by a light from a house window--which was probably the case. At all events, it disquieted her. Still, she overcame her disinclination to enter the house because of that. She reasoned from analogy. "All the other lights are reflections," she told herself, "and of course that must be." However, the main cause of her terror remained: the unfounded, world-old conviction of presences behind closed doors, the almost impossibility for a very imaginative person to conceive of an entirely empty room or house--that is, empty of sentient life. She had hidden the front-door key under the mat before the front door; she had lived long enough in the country to acquire that absurdly innocent habit. She groped for it, thought for a second, with a gasp of horror, that it was not there. Then she felt it with her gloved hand, fitted it in the lock, opened the door, and went in, and the inner darkness smote her like a hostile crowd.

It was actually to the child as if she were passing through a thick group of mysterious, inimical things concealed by the darkness. It was as if she heard whispers of conspiracy; it was even as if she smelled odors of strange garments and bodies. Every sense in her was on the alert. She even tasted something bitter in her mouth. It was all absurd. She reiterated in her ears that it was all absurd, but she had now passed the point wherein reason can support. She had come through an unusually active imagination into the unknown quantities and sequences of life. She put out her hands and groped her way through the darkness of the hall, and the fear lest she should touch some one, some terrible thing, was as bad as the reality could have been. She knew best where to find matches in the dining-room, so she went through the hall, with a sort of mad rush in spite of her blindness, and she gained the dining-room and felt along the shelf for a little hammered-brass bowl where matches were usually kept. In it she felt only two. The mantel-shelf was the old-fashioned marble monstrosity, the perpetuation of a false taste in domestic architecture, but it was excellent as to its facilities for scratching matches. She rubbed one of the two matches under the shelf on the rough surface, but it did not ignite. It evidently was a half-burned match. She took the other. It seemed to her that if that failed her, if she had to grope about the kitchen for more in this thick blackness--for even the street-light did not reach this room--she should die. She rubbed the last match against the marble, and it blazed directly. She shielded it carefully with her hand from the door draught, and succeeded in lighting a candle in one of a pair of brass candlesticks which stood on the shelf. She then held the flaring light aloft and looked fearfully around the room. Everything was as usual, but, strangely enough, it did not reassure her. The solitariness continued to hold terrible possibilities for her as well as the darkness, and with the light also returned what had been for a few minutes in abeyance before her purely selfish fear, the anxiety over her father. She moved about the house with the candle, going from room to room. It seemed to her that she could not remain one minute if she did not do so. Every time before entering a room she felt sure that it was occupied. Every time after leaving it she felt sure that something unknown was left there. She went into the kitchen, and saw her miserable little dinner drying up in the shelf of the range, and then for the first time self-pity asserted itself. She sat down and sobbed and sobbed.

"There, I got that nice dinner, that beautiful dinner," she said to herself, quite aloud in a pitiful wail like a baby's, "and perhaps poor papa will never even taste it. Oh dear! Oh dear!"

She rocked herself back and forth in the kitchen-chair, weeping. She had set the candle on the table, and a draught of wind from some unknown quarter struck it and the strangest lights and shadows flared and flickered over the room and ceiling. Presently, Charlotte, looking at them, became diverted again from her grief. She looked about fearfully. Then she made a tremendous effort, rose, and lighted a lamp. With that the room was not so frightful, yet it was still not normal. The familiar homely articles of furniture assumed strange appearances. She saw something on the range, a little object which filled her with such unreasoning horror that it was almost sheer insanity. It was simply because she could not for the moment imagine what the little object, which had nothing in the least frightful about it, could be. Finally she rose and looked, and it was only a little iron spoon which she must have dropped there. She removed it, but still the horror was over her. She lifted the cover from the dish of meat, and again the tears came.

"Poor papa! poor papa!" she said.

Then she carried the lamp into the dining-room, and went into the parlor. She had made herself quite satisfied that there was in reality nothing menacing in the house except her own fears. She would sit beside one of the front windows in the parlor, in the dark, in order that she might not be seen, and she would watch for her father, and she would also watch for any one who might approach the house with any harmful intent.

Charlotte curled herself up in a large chair beside the window which commanded the best view of the grounds and the drive. With the light of the young moon there was really no possibility that anything could approach unseen by her, unless by way of the fields from the back. But that she did not think of. Her mind became again concentrated upon her father and the possibility of either his return on the next train or a telegram explaining his absence. She knew that the next train from New York was due in Banbridge at a few minutes after eight. She had no time-table, but she remembered Major Arms arriving once, and she was quite certain that the train was due at eight-seventeen. It might, of course, be late. She reflected, with a sense of solid comfort, that the trains were rather more apt to be late than not. She need not give up hope of her father's arriving on this train until even nine o'clock, for besides the possibility of the lateness there was also that of his walking rather than taking a carriage from the station. In fact, he would probably walk, since he was still in Samson Rawdy's debt. She might allow at least twenty minutes for the walk from the station. She might allow more even than that. She sat at the window, and waited, peering out. There was a singular half-dusk rather than half-light from the new moon. The moon itself was not visible from where she sat, for the window faced north, but she could see over everything the sweet influence of it. There was no snow on the lawn, which was a dry crisp of frost-killed grass, as flat as if swept by a broom, and here and there were the faintest patches and mottles of silver from this moon, aside from a broad gleam of the garish light from the street-lamp. The bushes and trees showed lines of silver. The moon was so young that the stars were quite brilliant. Taking all the lights together--the electric light in the street, the new moon, and the stars--the lawn was quite visible, and even, because the leaves were now all gone from the trees, the road for quite a distance beyond. Charlotte had a considerable vista in which to watch for her father. The time passed incredibly in this watching. She had upon her such a fear and even premonition that he might not come, that the minutes passed with the horrible swiftness that they pass for a criminal awaiting execution. The first time she slipped out in the dining-room--with a last look at the lawn and road, to be sure that he would not be there in the mean time--to see what time it was by the clock on the shelf, she was amazed. It was already eight o'clock. She had not dreamed it was more than half-past seven. She crept back to her place by the parlor window, with the feeling that much of her time of reprieve had passed, and that she was so much the nearer the certainty of tribulation. Instead of impatience she had rather the desire to defer approaching disaster. While she watched, she had less and less hope that her father would come on that train, and yet she kept her heart alive by picturing her rapture when she should see his tall, dark figure enter the lawn path, when she should run and unlock and unbar the door and throw her arms around his neck. She made up her mind that she should not confess to him what a panic she had been in because of his non-arrival. She planned how she would run and set the dinner, in which she still believed, on the table, and how hungry he would be for it. She was quite sure that her poor father did not in these days provide himself with sumptuous lunches in the city. But all the time she reared these air-castles, she saw for a certainty the dark sky of her trouble through them. For some premonition, or a much modified form of prophecy, the rudimentary expression of a divine sense in reality exists. It existed in Charlotte watching for her father at the window, and yet so bound up was she in the probabilities and present sequences of things that she still watched. Now and then she made sure that she saw her father turn from the road into the lawn, but the figure, to her horror, would remain standing still in one place. It was simply a slender spruce which had seemed to start out of a corner of the night with a semblance of life. Now and then she actually did see a figure coming up the road, approaching the entrance to the lawn, and her heart leaped up with joy. She watched for it to enter, but that was the end. Whoever it was, it had passed the house and gone farther up the road. Those were the cruellest moments of any--the momentary revival of hope and then the dashing it to the ground. By-and-by her eyes, strained with such watching, began to actually deceive her. She saw, as she thought, shadows, approach and enter the house. Several times she ran to the door and opened it, and no one was there.

After she had gone out in the dining-room and seen that it was eight-seventeen, the time when the train was due in Banbridge, she watched for the train. She knew that she could hear the rush of the train after it left the station; she could even catch a glimpse of the rosy fire of the locomotive through the trees, since the track was elevated. She therefore watched for that, but it was very late. That was unmistakably a great solace for her. She actually had a prayerful mood of thankfulness for the lateness of the train. It was that much longer that she need not give up hope. There was a few minutes that she felt quite easy. Suddenly she remembered how foolish she had been to watch for her father, anyway, before she heard the arrival of the train. She realized that her head was overstrained, her reason failing her. "How could papa come before the train?" she asked herself. But after a few minutes her fears reasserted themselves. She watched for something inimical to appear crossing the lawn instead of her father. And then she heard a train, and she felt faint, but in a second she became aware that it was a long freight. No passenger-train ever moved thus with the veritable chu-chu of the children, the heavy panting of two engines. Then after that she started again, for she heard a train, but it was as if she had been let fall by some wanton hand from a cruel height, for that train was clearly a fast express which did not stop at Banbridge. Then she heard a faint rumble of another freight on the Lehigh Valley road. Then at last came the train for which she had been looking, the train on which her father might come, the train on which he surely would come unless some terrible thing had happened. She heard distinctly, with her sharpened ears, the stop of the train at the station, the letting off of steam. She heard the engine-bell. She heard it resume its advance with slowly gathering motion. She saw a rosy flash of fire in the distance from the engine. Then she waited for carriage-wheels, or for the sight of her father coming up the road. It was quite soon that she heard carriage-wheels on the frozen ground, and she ran to the door and opened it, but the carriage passed. Samson Rawdy was taking home the next neighbor. "It will take papa considerably longer if he walks," she told herself, and she locked the door and returned to her station at the window. She saw again a dark figure approaching on the road outside, and she thought with a great throb of joy that he had surely come, but the figure did not enter the grounds. She allowed twenty-five minutes for him to walk from the station. She said to herself if, when twenty-five minutes had elapsed, he had not come, she should certainly know that he had not come on that train. She did not dare look at the clock, but after a while, when she did so, she found it was twenty-seven minutes after eight. Still that clock often gained. She ran out in the kitchen and looked at the clock there, but that had stopped at half-past seven. It was very seldom that anybody remembered to wind up the kitchen-clock since Marie went. Her own little watch was at the jeweller's in New Sanderson for repairs. She had nothing to depend on except the dining-room clock, which, to her great comfort, so often gained. She decided that she might wait until ten minutes of nine by that clock before she gave up hope, but the next time she went trembling out to look at it it was only three minutes before nine. Then it occurred to her that her father might easily have had an errand at one of the stores before coming home. The post-office would be closed; she had no hope for that, but he might have had some business. She thought that she might allow until half-past nine before she entirely gave up her father having come on the eight-seventeen train. It was then that she began running out on the lawn to the entrance of the drive to watch for him. She put a Roman blanket, which was kept on the divan in the den, over her head, and she continually ran out across the lawn, and stood close to a tree, staring down the road for some sign of her father. Curiously enough, she was not nearly so terrified out-of-doors as in the house. The strain of returning to that vacant house was much worse for her than going across the lawn in the lonely night. She watched and watched, and at last when she returned to the house and looked at the dining-room clock, it was half-past nine, and she completely gave up all hope of her father having come on that train.

A species of stupor, of terror and anxiety, seemed to overcome her. She sat by the parlor window, still staring out from mere force of habit. She knew that the next and last train that night was not due until one-thirty, presumably nearly two o'clock. She knew that there was not the slightest chance of her father's coming until then, but her mind now centred on the telegram. It did seem as if there must be a telegram, at least. All at once a figure appeared in the road and swiftly turned into the drive. She thought at once that the boy in the drug-store was bringing the telegram; still, she resolved not to open the door until she was sure who it was. She peered closely from the window, and it was unmistakably the drug-store boy who emerged from the tree shadows and came up on the stoop. She ran to the door and unfastened it, not waiting for him to ring. She held out her trembling little hand for the telegram, but he kept his at his side. He looked at her, grinning half-sympathetically, half-sheepishly. He was an overgrown boy, perhaps three years younger than she, whom a pretty girl overwhelmed with an enormous self-consciousness and admiration.

"Where is it?" asked Charlotte, impatiently.

"I 'ain't got nothing'," said the boy.

"Then why--"

"I was going home from the store, and I thought I'd jest stop an' let you know there wa'n't no telegrams yet. It wa'n't much out of my way."

Charlotte gasped.

"I thought it might be a relief to your mind to know," said the boy. "I thought you might be watchin'. I saw your father didn't come on that other train. I was up at the station on an errand."

"Thank you," said Charlotte, feebly.

The boy lingered a second with bashful eyes on her face, then he said again that he thought he would just stop in and let her know. He was going down the path, and she was just closing the door, when he called back that she might have a telegram if her father sent it by the postal-telegraph system.

"You won't get none from our place after now," he said, "for Mr. Drake won't bring up none so late; but if your father sends that way, you could get one, mebbe."

"Thank you," replied Charlotte, and the boy went away.

When Charlotte re-entered the house and locked the door, a loneliness which was like a positive chill struck over her. It was much worse now since she had been in communication with another human being.

"If he had only been a girl I would have gone down on my knees to him to stay all night with me," she thought.

She tried to think if there was anybody in Banbridge whom she could ask to stay with her, but she could think of none. She thought of Marie, but she did not even know where she was. There was no woman whom she could call upon. She resumed her seat beside the window. She did not dream of going to bed. She had now to watch for the possible postal telegram; it would not be time for the last train for hours yet. She had the telegraph-messenger and some possible marauder to watch for. She kept her eyes glued to the expanse of the lawn and small stretch of road visible between the leafless trees. Now and then a carriage passed; very seldom a walking shadow. She always started at the sight of these, thinking the telegram might be about to arrive. If the telegram should arrive she expected fully that it would be of some terrible import. A thought struck her, something that she might do. If her father was injured, if she were to be sent for from the City, she resolved that she would have everything in readiness for instant departure. There was a train which Banbridge flagged after the arrival of the last train from New York. She lit a lamp, went up-stairs, and packed a little travelling-bag with necessaries, and made some changes in her dress, and felt a certain relief in so doing. She had very little money, and a book with two or three railroad tickets. She felt that she could start at a moment's notice should the telegram arrive. All the time she was packing she was listening for the door-bell. It became quite firmly fixed in her mind what the telegram would be: that her father was terribly injured and had been carried to a hospital, that she should at once go to the hospital. It sometimes occurred to her that he might be even dead, but that idea did not so take hold on her fancy as the other.

She left the lamp burning up-stairs, thinking suddenly that it would be well to have the house present the appearance of being well inhabited. She took her hat and coat and her little travelling-bag, and she went back to the place by the parlor window and stared out at the lawn again. It was growing very late. Soon it would be time for her to watch for the last train. It really seemed to the girl an incredible supposition of disaster that that train could pass by and her father not appear, and that in the face of her morbid and pessimistic conclusions. She was a mass of inconsistencies, of incoherencies. She at once despaired and hoped with a hope that was conviction. At last, when she saw by the clock that it only wanted a few minutes before the time when the last train was due, her spirits arose as if winged. She even went out in the kitchen and examined the wretched dinner to make sure it was still hot. She put more coal on the range. The house was growing very cold, and she knew that the furnace fire needed attention, but she absolutely dared not go down cellar alone at that time. They had very little coal, also, and had been in the habit of letting the furnace fire die down at night. She put on her coat when she returned from the kitchen, and sat again by the window. She felt now an absolute certainty that her father would arrive on this train. She felt that it was monstrous to assume that her father would not come home all night and leave her alone with no message. She felt even quite radiantly happy sitting there. She said to herself what a little goose she had been. Even a noise made by some coal falling in the kitchen-range failed to startle her. She now hoped that the train would not be late, and it was, in fact, very nearly on time. Then she watched for her father with not the slightest doubt that he would come. It had come to that pass that her credulity as to disaster had failed her. It was simply out of her power to credit the possibility of his not coming on this train when he had sent no telegram. She knew that there would be no carriage at the station at that hour, unless he had telegraphed for one from New York, and she questioned, in the state of their finances, if he would do that. She was therefore sure of seeing his figure appear, coming, with the stately stride which she knew so well, into view on the road below the lawn.

She allowed twenty-five minutes for his appearance after she had seen the train pass. She knew nothing could detain him in the village at that time of night, and she was sure he would come within that time. She looked at the dining-room clock and found that she had, if she allowed that twenty-five minutes, just fifteen minutes to wait. She sat shrugged up in her little fur-trimmed coat, for the house was growing very cold, and stared intently at the pale glimmer of the road. After the twenty-five minutes had passed, she went out in the dining-room and looked at the clock. The time was more than passed; there was no doubt. Her father had not come. The panic seized her.

She was now dashed from the heights of hope, and the shock was double. She realized that her father had not come, would not come that night; that she would probably have no telegram. She realized that she was all alone in the house. Now again unreasoning fear as well as the anxiety for her father seized her. Again the conviction of the awful population of the empty rooms was upon her. She sat down again by the window, and she tried to make her reasoning powers reassert themselves.

"If anything comes this way, I shall see it in time, and I can run out the back door and across to the neighbors," she told herself. "If anything comes in the back way, I shall hear and have time to run out the front door; and I know there is nothing in the house." But she could not reassure herself, since what terrified her, and even temporarily unbalanced her, was fear itself.

Fear multiplied, growing upon itself, spreading out new tentacles with every throb of her imagination, filling the whole house. All her life she had thought what a frightful thing it would be if ever she were left alone by herself in a house, all night; and now worse than that had come to pass, for she was not alone; the house was peopled by fear and the creatures of fear. She heard noises constantly that she could not account for, and she also saw things which she could not account for. Again the small and trivial, acutely stinging horror of some ordinary object in a new and awful guise possessed her. She was almost paralyzed at the sudden glimpse of something on the divan across the room. It was a long time before she could possibly totter to investigate, and ascertain it was one of her own gloves. But it did not strike her as at all funny. There was still something frightful to her about the glove. She went back to the window, and soon she distinctly heard a noise up-stairs, and then a shadow crossed the ceiling. A new horror seized her--a horror of herself. She felt that in another moment she might herself become a very part and substance of the fear that was oppressing her. She had an imagination of jumping up, of running about and screaming, of breaking something. Then with that clutch at life and reason which is life itself, which all dying and despairing things have at the last, she thought again that there must be somebody, somebody in the whole place to whom she could turn, somebody who would help her, who would pity her. She had heretofore only thought of the possibility of somebody who would come and stay with her; it now occurred to her that she herself might be the one to go, and that she might escape from this house of fear. It was suddenly to her as to a prisoner who realizes that all the time his prison doors have been unbarred.

"What am I staying here for in this awful house by myself?" she suddenly thought. When that idea came to her, the idea of escape, the action of her mind became involuntary. There was only one to whom she could run for aid. She remembered so vividly that the experience seemed to repeat itself, her terror of the tramp in the woods, and how she had seen Anderson. She sprang up. It became sure to her that she must get away from that house, that she must not remain. The imaginative girl, whom anxiety and want of food had weakened, as well as fear, was fairly at the point of madness, or that hysteria which is the border-land of it. She distinctly heard herself laugh as she ran out of the room and out of the house. Her head was bare, but she did not think of that. She had on her coat which she had worn because of the coldness of the house. She fled across the lawn to the street. Once on the road, she was saner, she felt only the natural impulse of flight of any hunted thing. She fled down the road past the quiet village houses, in which the people slept in their beds. The electric lights were out, the moon was low. It was quite dark. Nobody except herself was abroad in the night. A great pity for herself, a pity that she might have felt for a little lonely child out by herself at night, when everybody else was safe in their homes, came over her. She sobbed as she ran; she even sobbed quite loudly. She did not feel so afraid, as wild for somebody to take her in and comfort her. She ran down the main street and turned up the one on which the Andersons lived. When she reached the house it was quite dark, except for a very faint glimmer in one of the upper front rooms. It was from the little night-lamp which Mrs. Anderson always kept burning. The sight of that light seemed to give Charlotte strength to get up the steps. She had run so weakly that all the way she had a thought of the terraces of steps leading to the Anderson house, if she could climb them. She went up the steps, and then she pressed hard the electric button on the door; she also raised the superfluous old brass knocker which Mrs. Anderson cherished because it was a relic from her husband's time; then she clanged that. Then she sank down on the step in front of the door.

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Chapter XXXIXAlmost at once a light flashed from an upper window in response to Charlotte's knock and ring. Anderson himself had been in New York that night with Henry Edgecomb to the theatre. A celebrated play was on, in which a celebrated actress figured, and the two had taken one of their rather infrequent excursions. Consequently, Anderson had not been in the house more than an hour, and during that hour had been writing some letters which he wished to get off in the early mail. His room was at the back of the house, a long room extending nearly the
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Chapter XXXVIICharlotte had expected her father home at a little after six o'clock that night. That was the train on which he usually arrived lately. She had not the least idea what he was doing in the City. She supposed he was in the office as he had been hitherto. She never inquired. With all the girl's love for her father, she had a decided respect. She was old-fashioned in her ways of never interfering or even asking for information concerning a man's business affairs.Charlotte went down to the station to meet her father, as she was fond of doing. She
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