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   Chapter 6 THE SCREAM IN THE NIGHT

The Gloved Hand By Burton Egbert Stevenson Characters: 11765

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


For some moments, I stood staring up into the darkness, half-expecting that shadowy figure to reappear, descend the ladder, and rejoin me. Then I shook myself together. The fact that our plot was really moving, that Swain was in the enemy's country, so to speak, gave the affair a finality which it had lacked before. It was too late now to hesitate or turn back; we must press forward. I felt as though, after a long period of uncertainty, war had been declared and the advance definitely begun. So it was with a certain sense of relief that I turned away, walked slowly back to the house, and sat down again upon the porch to wait.

Now waiting is seldom a pleasant or an easy thing, and I found it that night most unpleasant and uneasy. For, before long, doubts began to crowd upon me-doubts of the wisdom of the course I had subscribed to. It would have been wiser, I told myself, if it had been I, and not Swain, who had gone to the rendezvous; wiser still, perhaps, to have sought an interview openly, and to have made sure of the facts before seeming to encourage what might easily prove to be a girl's more or less romantic illusions. A midnight interview savoured too much of melodrama to appeal to a middle-aged lawyer like myself, however great its appeal might be to youthful lovers. At any rate, I would be certain that the need was very great before I consented to meddle further!

Somewhat comforted by this resolution and by the thought that no real harm had as yet been done, I struck a match and looked at my watch. It was half-past eleven. Well, whatever the story was, Swain was hearing it now, and I should hear it before long. And then I caught the hum of an approaching car, and was momentarily blinded by the glare of acetylene lamps.

"Hello, Lester," called Godfrey's voice, "I'll be back in a minute," and he ran the car on toward the rear of the house.

I stood up with a gasp of thankfulness. Here was someone to confide in and advise with. The stretch of lonely waiting was at an end; it had been a trying evening!

I think the warmth of my greeting surprised Godfrey, for he looked at me curiously.

"Sit down, Godfrey," I said. "I've got something to tell you."

"What, discoveries already?" he laughed, but he drew a chair close to mine and sat down. "Well, what are they?"

I began at the beginning and related the day's adventures. He listened without comment, but I could see how his interest grew.

"So young Swain is over in those grounds now," he said thoughtfully, when I had finished.

"Yes; he's been there three-quarters of an hour."

"Why do you suppose Miss Vaughan named so late an hour?"

"I don't know. Perhaps because she was afraid of being discovered earlier than that-or perhaps merely because she's just a romantic girl."

Godfrey sat with his head bent in thought for a moment.

"I have it!" he said. "At eleven-thirty every night her father and the adept go up to the roof, to remain there till midnight. That is the one time of the whole day when she is absolutely sure to be alone. Come along, Lester!"

He was on his feet now, and his voice was quivering with excitement.

"Where are you going?" I asked.

"Up the ladder. It's nearly twelve. If the star falls as usual, we'll know that everything is all right. If it doesn't ..."

He did not finish, but hurried away among the trees. In a moment we were at the ladder; in another moment we were high among the leaves, straining our eyes through the darkness.

"I'm going to look at my watch," said Godfrey, in a low voice. "Lean back and screen me."

I heard the flash of the match and saw a little glare of light against the nearest leaves. Then Godfrey's voice spoke again.

"It's three minutes of twelve," he said.

There was a tension in his voice which sent a shiver through me, though I understood but dimly what it was he feared. The stars were shining brightly, and once I fancied that I saw the strange star appear among them; but when I closed my eyes for an instant and looked again, it was gone. Slow minute followed minute, and the hand with which I clutched the ladder began to tremble. The sight of that mysterious light had shaken me the night before, but not half so deeply as its absence shook me now. At last the suspense grew unendurable.

"It must be long past midnight," I whispered.

"It is," agreed Godfrey gravely; "we may as well go down."

He paused an instant longer to stare out into the darkness, then descended quickly. I followed, and found him waiting, a dark shadow. He put his hand on my arm, and stood a moment, as though in indecision. For myself, I felt as though an intolerable burden had been laid upon my shoulders.

"Well," I asked, at last, "what now?"

"We must see if Swain has returned," he answered. "If he has, all right. If he hasn't, we'll have to go and look for him."

"What is it you fear, Godfrey?" I demanded. "Do you think Swain's in danger?"

"I don't know what I fear; but there's something wrong over there. This is the first night for a week that that light hasn't appeared."

"Still," I pointed out, "that may have nothing to do with Swain."

"No; but it's a coincidence that he should be in the grounds-and I'm always afraid of coincidences. Let us see if he is back," and he turned toward the house.

But I held his arm.

"If he's back," I said, "he'll have taken the ladders down from the wall."

"That's true," and together we made our way forward among the trees. Then we reached the wall, and there was the dim white line of the ladder leaning against it. Without a word, Godfrey mounted it, stood an instant at the top, and then came down again.

"The other ladder is still there," he said, and took off his cap and rubbed his head perplexedly. I could not see his face, but I could guess how tense it was. I had been with him in many t

rying situations, but only once before had I seen him use that gesture!

"It won't do to alarm the house," he said, at last. "Do you know where he was to meet Miss Vaughan?"

"At an arbour in one corner of the grounds," I answered.

"Then we'll start from there and take a quiet look for him. Wait here for me a minute."

He melted into the darkness, and I stood holding on to the ladder as though in danger of falling, and staring at the top of the wall, where I had last seen Swain. An hour and a half had passed since then....

A touch on the arm brought me around with a start.

"Here, put this pistol in your pocket," said Godfrey's voice, and I felt the weapon pressed into my hand. "And here's an electric torch. Do you feel the button?"

"Yes," I said, and pressed it. A ray of light shot toward the wall, but I released the button instantly.

"You'd better keep it in your hand," he added, "ready for action. No telling what we'll run across. And now come ahead."

He put his foot on the ladder, but I stopped him.

"Look here, Godfrey," I said, "do you realise that what we're about to do is pretty serious? Swain might have a legal excuse, since the daughter of the house invited him to a meeting; but if we go over the wall, we're trespassers pure and simple. Anybody who runs across us in the darkness has the right to shoot us down without asking any questions-and we'd have no legal right to shoot back!"

I could hear Godfrey chuckling, and I felt my cheeks redden.

"You remind me of Tartarin," he said; "the adventurer-Tartarin urging you on, the lawyer-Tartarin holding you back. My advice is to shake the lawyer, Lester. He's out of his element here to-night. But if he's too strong for you, why, stay here," and he started up the ladder.

Burning with vexation, I started after him, but suddenly he stopped.

"Listen!" he whispered.

I heard something rattle against the other side of the wall; then a dark figure appeared on the coping.

I felt Godfrey press me back, and descended cautiously. A moment later, something slid down the wall, and I knew that the person at the top had lifted the other ladder over. Then the figure descended, and then a distorted face stared into the circle of Godfrey's torch.

For a breath, I did not recognise it; then I saw that it was Swain's.

I shall never forget the shock it gave me, with its starting eyes and working mouth and smear of blood across the forehead. Godfrey, I knew, was also startled, for the light flashed out for an instant, and then flashed on again.

"What is it, Swain?" I cried, and seized him by the arm; but he shook me off roughly.

"Stand back!" he cried, hoarsely. "Who is it? What do you want?"

"It's Lester," I said, and Godfrey flashed his torch into my face, then back to Swain's.

"But you're not alone."

"No; this is Mr. Godfrey."

"Mr. Godfrey?"

"Whose house we're staying at," I explained.

"Ah!" said Swain, and put one hand to his head and leaned heavily against the ladder.

"I think we'd better go to the house," Godfrey suggested, soothingly. "We all need a bracer. Then we can talk. Don't you think so, Mr. Swain?"

Swain nodded vacantly, but I could see that he had not understood. His face was still working and he seemed to be in pain.

"I want to wash," he said, thickly. "I cut my wrist on that damned glass, and I'm blood all over, and my head's wrong, somehow." His voice trailed off into an unintelligible mumble, but he held one hand up into the circle of light, and I saw that his cuff was soaked with blood and his hand streaked with it.

"Come along, then," said Godfrey peremptorily. "You're right-that cut must be attended to," and he started toward the house.

"Wait!" Swain called after him, with unexpected vigour. "We must take down the ladders. We mustn't leave them here."

"Why not?"

"If they're found, they'll suspect-they'll know ..." He stopped, stammering, and again his voice trailed away into a mumble, as though beyond his control.

Godfrey looked at him for a moment, and I could guess at the surprise and suspicion in his eyes. I myself was ill at ease, for there was something in Swain's face-a sort of vacant horror and dumb shrinking-that filled me with a vague repulsion. And then to see his jaw working, as he tried to form articulate words and could not, sent a shiver over my scalp.

"Very well," Godfrey agreed, at last. "We'll take the ladders, since you think it so important. You take that one, Lester, and I'll take this."

I stooped to raise the ladder to my shoulder, when suddenly, cutting the darkness like a knife, came a scream so piercing, so vibrant with fear, that I stood there crouching, every muscle rigid. Again the scream came, more poignant, more terrible, wrung from a woman's throat by the last extremity of horror; and then a silence sickening and awful. What was happening in that silence?

I stood erect, gaping, suffocated, rising as from a long submersion. Godfrey's finger had slipped from the button of his torch, and we were in darkness; but suddenly a dim figure hurled itself past us, up the ladder.

With a low cry, Godfrey snatched at it, but his hand clutched only the empty air. The next instant, the figure poised itself on the coping of the wall and then plunged forward out of sight. I heard the crash of breaking branches, a scramble, a patter of feet, and all was still.

"It's Swain!" said Godfrey, hoarsely; "and that's a twelve-foot drop! Why, the man's mad! Hand me that ladder, Lester!" he added, for he was already at the top of the wall.

I lifted it, as I had done once before that night, and saw Godfrey slide it over the wall.

"Come on!" he said. "We must save him if we can!" and he, too, disappeared.

The next instant, I was scrambling desperately after him. The lawyer-Tartarin had vanished!

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