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The Gloved Hand By Burton Egbert Stevenson Characters: 11002

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

I glanced at my watch, as soon as I was out of bed, and saw that it was after ten o'clock. All the sleep I had lost during the hot nights of the previous week had been crowded into the last nine hours; I felt like a new man, and when, half an hour later, I ran downstairs, it was with such an appetite for breakfast as I had not known for a long time.

There was no one in the hall, and I stepped out through the open door to the porch beyond, and stood looking about me. The house was built in the midst of a grove of beautiful old trees, some distance back from the road, of which I could catch only a glimpse. It was a small house, a story and a half in height, evidently designed only as a summer residence.

"Good morning, sir," said a voice behind me, and I turned to find a pleasant-faced, grey-haired woman standing in the doorway.

"Good morning," I responded. "I suppose you are Mrs. Hargis?"

"Yes, sir; and your breakfast's ready."

"Has Mr. Godfrey gone?"

"Yes, sir; he left about an hour ago. He was afraid his machine would waken you."

"It didn't," I said, as I followed her back along the hall. "Nothing short of an earthquake would have wakened me. Ah, this is fine!"

She had shown me into a pleasant room, where a little table was set near an open window. It made quite a picture, with its white cloth and shining dishes and plate of yellow butter, and bowl of crimson berries, and-but I didn't linger to admire it. I don't know when I have enjoyed breakfast so much. Mrs. Hargis, after bringing in the eggs and bacon and setting a little pot of steaming coffee at my elbow, sensibly left me alone to the enjoyment of it. Ever since that morning, I have realised that, to start the day exactly right, a man should breakfast by himself, amid just such surroundings, leisurely and without distraction. A copy of the morning's Record was lying on the table, but I did not even open it. I did not care what had happened in the world the day before!

At last, ineffably content, I stepped out upon the driveway at the side of the house, and strolled away among the trees. At the end of a few minutes, I came to the high stone wall which bounded the estate of the mysterious Worthington Vaughan, and suddenly the wish came to me to see what lay behind it. Without much difficulty, I found the tree with the ladder against it, which we had mounted the night before. It was a long ladder, even in the daytime, but at last I reached the top, and settled myself on the limb against which it rested. Assuring myself that the leaves hid me from any chance observer, I looked down into the grounds beyond the wall.

There was not much to see. The grounds were extensive and had evidently been laid out with care, but there was an air of neglect about them, as though the attention they received was careless and inadequate. The shrubbery was too dense, grass was invading the walks, here and there a tree showed a dead limb or a broken one. Near the house was a wide lawn, designed, perhaps, as a tennis-court or croquet-ground, with rustic seats under the trees at the edge.

About the house itself was a screen of magnificent elms, which doubtless gave the place its name, and which shut the house in completely. All I could see of it was one corner of the roof. This, however, stood out clear against the sky, and it was here, evidently, that the mysterious midnight figures had been stationed. As I looked at it, I realised the truth of Godfrey's remark that probably from no other point of vantage but just this would they be visible.

It did not take me many minutes to exhaust the interest of this empty prospect, more especially since my perch was anything but comfortable, and I was just about to descend, when two white-robed figures appeared at the edge of the open space near the house and walked slowly across it. I settled back into my place with a tightening of interest which made me forget its discomfort, for that these were the two star-worshippers I did not doubt.

The distance was so great that their faces were the merest blurs; but I could see that one leaned heavily upon the arm of the other, as much, or so it seemed to me, for moral as for physical support. I could see, too, that the hair of the feebler man was white, while that of his companion was jet black. The younger man's face appeared so dark that I suspected he wore a beard, and his figure was erect and vigorous, in the prime of life, virile and full of power.

He certainly dominated the older man. I watched them attentively, as they paced back and forth, and the dependence of the one upon the other was very manifest. Both heads were bent as though in earnest talk, and for perhaps half an hour they walked slowly up and down. Then, at a sign of fatigue from the older figure, the other led him to a garden-bench, where both sat down.

The elder man, I told myself, was no doubt Worthington Vaughan. Small wonder he was considered queer if he dressed habitually in a white robe and worshipped the stars at midnight! There was something monkish about the habits which he and his companion wore, and the thought flashed into my mind that perhaps they were members of some religious order, or some Oriental cult or priesthood. And both of them, I added to myself, must be a little mad!

As I watched, the discussion gradually grew more animated, and the younger man, springing to his feet, paced excitedly up and down, touching his forehead with his fingers from time t

o time, and raising his hands to heaven, as though calling it as a witness to his words. At last the other made a sign of assent, got to his feet, bent his head reverently as to a spiritual superior and walked slowly away toward the house. The younger man stood gazing after him until he passed from sight, then resumed his rapid pacing up and down, evidently deeply moved.

At last from the direction of the house came the flutter of a white robe. For a moment, I thought it was the old man returning; then as it emerged fully from among the trees, I saw that it was a woman-a young woman, I guessed, from her slimness, and from the mass of dark hair which framed her face. And then I remembered that Godfrey had told me that Worthington Vaughan had a daughter.

The man was at her side in an instant, held out his hand, and said something, which caused her to shrink away. She half-turned, as though to flee, but the other laid his hand upon her arm, speaking earnestly, and, after a moment, she permitted him to lead her to a seat. He remained standing before her, sometimes raising his hands to heaven, sometimes pointing toward the house, sometimes bending close above her, and from time to time making that peculiar gesture of touching his fingers to his forehead, whose meaning I could not guess. But I could guess at the torrent of passionate words which poured from his lips, and at the eager light which was in his eyes!

The woman sat quite still, with bowed head, listening, but making no sign either of consent or refusal. Gradually, the man grew more confident, and at last stooped to take her hand, but she drew it quickly away, and, raising her head, said something slowly and with emphasis. He shook his head savagely, then, after a rapid turn up and down, seemed to agree, bowed low to her, and went rapidly away toward the house. The woman sat for some time where he had left her, her face in her hands; then, with a gesture of weariness and discouragement, crossed the lawn and disappeared among the trees.

For a long time I sat there motionless, my eyes on the spot where she had disappeared, trying to understand. What was the meaning of the scene? What was it the younger man had urged so passionately upon her, but at which she had rebelled? What was it for which he had pled so earnestly? The obvious answer was that he pled for her love, that he had urged her to become his wife; but the answer did not satisfy me. His attitude had been passionate enough, but it had scarcely been lover-like. It had more of admonition, of warning, even of threat, than of entreaty in it. It was not the attitude of a lover to his mistress, but of a master to his pupil.

And what had been the answer, wrung from her finally by his insistence-the answer to which he had at first violently dissented, and then reluctantly agreed?

No doubt, if these people had been garbed in the clothes of every day, I should have felt at the outset that all this was none of my business, and have crept down the ladder and gone away. But their strange dress gave to the scene an air at once unreal and theatrical, and not for an instant had I felt myself an intruder. It was as though I were looking at the rehearsal of a drama designed for the public gaze and enacted upon a stage; or, more properly, a pantomime, dim and figurative, but most impressive. Might it not, indeed, be a rehearsal of some sort-private theatricals-make-believe? But that scene at midnight-that could not be make-believe! No, nor was this scene in the garden. It was in earnest-in deadliest earnest; there was about it something sinister and threatening; and it was the realisation of this-the realisation that there was something here not right, something demanding scrutiny-which kept me chained to my uncomfortable perch, minute after minute.

But nothing further happened, and I realised, at last, that if I was to escape an agonising cramp in the leg, I must get down. I put my feet on the ladder, and then paused for a last look about the grounds. My eye was caught by a flutter of white among the trees. Someone was walking along one of the paths; in a moment, straining forward, I saw it was the woman, and that she was approaching the wall.

And then, as she came nearer, I saw that she was not a woman at all, but a girl-a girl of eighteen or twenty, to whom the flowing robes gave, at a distance, the effect of age. I caught only a glimpse of her face before it was hidden by a clump of shrubbery, but that glimpse told me that it was a face to set the pulses leaping. I strained still farther forward, waiting until she should come into sight again....

Along the path she came, with the sunlight about her, kissing her hair, her lips, her cheeks-and the next instant her eyes were staring upwards into mine.

I could not move. I could only stare down at her. I saw the hot colour sweep across her face; I saw her hand go to her bosom; I saw her turn to flee. Then, to my amazement, she stopped, as though arrested by a sudden thought, turned toward me again, and raised her eyes deliberately to mine.

For fully a minute she stood there, her gaze searching and intent, as though she would read my soul; then her face hardened with sudden resolution. Again she put her hand to her bosom, turned hastily toward the wall, and disappeared behind it.

The next instant, something white came flying over it, and fell on the grass beneath my tree. Staring down at it, I saw it was a letter.

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