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   Chapter 5 THE WAITING

The Night Horseman By Max Brand Characters: 7678

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


The doctor removed his coat with absent-minded slowness, and all the time that he was removing the dust and the stains of travel, he kept narrowing the eye of his mind to visualise more clearly that cumbersome chain which lay on the floor of the adjoining room. Now, the doctor was not of a curious or gossipy nature, but if someone had offered to tell him the story of that chain for a thousand dollars, the doctor at that moment would have thought the price ridiculously small.

Then the doctor went down to the dinner table prepared to keep one eye upon Buck Daniels and the other upon Kate Cumberland. But if he expected to learn through conversation at the table he was grievously disappointed, for Buck Daniels ate with an eye to strict business that allowed no chatter, and the girl sat with a forced smile and an absent eye. Now and again Buck would glance up at her, watch her for an instant, and then turn his attention back to his plate with a sort of gloomy resolution; there were not half a dozen words exchanged from the beginning to the end of the meal.

After that they went in to the invalid. He lay in the same position, his skinny hands crossed upon his breast, and his shaggy brows were drawn so low that the eyes were buried in profound shadow. They took positions in a loose semi-circle, all pointing towards the sick man, and it reminded Byrne with grim force of a picture he had seen of three wolves waiting for the bull moose to sink in the snows: they, also, were waiting for a death. It seemed, indeed, as if death must have already come; at least it could not make him more moveless than he was. Against the dark wall his profile was etched by a sharp highlight which was brightest of all on his forehead and his nose; while the lower portion of the face was lost in comparative shadow.

So perfect and so detailed was the resemblance to death, indeed, that the lips in the shadow smiled-fixedly. It was not until Kate Cumberland shifted a lamp, throwing more light on her father, that Byrne saw that the smile was in reality a forcible compression of the lips. He understood, suddenly, that the silent man on the couch was struggling terribly against an hysteria of emotion. It brought beads of sweat out upon the doctor's tall forehead; for this perfect repose suggested an agony more awful than yells and groans and struggles. The silence was like acid; it burned without a flame. And Byrne knew, that moment, the quality of the thing which had wasted the rancher. It was this acid of grief or yearning which had eaten deep into him and was now close to his heart. The girl had said that for six months he had been failing. Six months! Six eternities of burning at the stake!

He lay silent, waiting; and his resignation meant that he knew death would come before that for which he waited. Silence, that was the key-note of the room. The girl was silent, her eyes dark with grief; yet they were not fixed upon her father. It came thrilling home to Byrne that her sorrow was not entirely for her dying parent, for she looked beyond him rather than at him. Was she, too, waiting? Was that what gave her the touch of sad gravity, the mystery like the mystery of distance?

And Buck Daniels. He, also, said nothing. He rolled cigarettes one after another with amazing dexterity and smoked them with half a dozen Titanic breaths. His was a single-track mind. He loved the girl, and he bore the sign of his love on his face. He wanted her desperately; it was a hunger like that of Tantalus, too keen to be ever satisfied. Yet, still more than he looked at the girl, he, also, stared into the distance. He, also, was waiting!

It was the deep suspense of Cumberland which made him so silently alert. He was as intensely alive as the receiver of a wireless apparatus; he gathered information from the emp

ty air.

So that Byrne was hardly surprised, when, in the midst of that grim silence, the old man raised a rigid forefinger of warning. Kate and Daniels stiffened in their chairs and Byrne felt his flesh creep. Of course it was nothing. The wind, which had shaken the house with several strong gusts before dinner, had now grown stronger and blew with steadily increasing violence; perhaps the sad old man had been attracted by the mournful chorus and imagined some sound he knew within it.

But now once more the finger was raised, the arm extended, shaking violently, and Joe Cumberland turned upon them a glance which flashed with a delirious and unhealthy joy.

"Listen!" he cried. "Again!"

"What?" asked Kate.

"I hear them, I tell you."

Her lips blanched, and parted to speak, but she checked the impulse and looked swiftly about the room with what seemed to Byrne an appeal for help. As for Buck Daniels, he changed from a dark bronze to an unhealthy yellow; fear, plain and grimly unmistakable, was in his face. Then he strode to the window and threw it open with a crash. The wind leaped in and tossed the flame in the throat of the chimney, so that great shadows waved suddenly through the room, and made the chairs seem afloat. Even the people were suddenly unreal. And the rush of the storm gave Byrne an eerie sensation of being blown through infinite space. For a moment there was only the sound of the gale and the flapping of a loose picture against the wall, and the rattling of a newspaper. Then he heard it.

First it was a single note which he could not place. It was music, and yet it was discordant, and it had the effect of a blast of icy wind.

Once he had been in Egypt and had stood in a corridor of Cheops' pyramid. The torch had been blown out in the hand of his guide. From somewhere in the black depths before them came a laugh, made unhuman by echoes. And Byrne had visioned the mummied dead pushing back the granite lids of their sarcophagi and sitting upright.

But that was nothing compared with this. Not half so wild or strange.

He listened again, breathless, with the sharp prickling running up and down his spine. It was the honking of the wild geese, flying north. And out of the sound he builded a picture of the grey triangle cleaving through the cold upper sky, sent on a mission no man could understand.

"Was I right? Was I right?" shrilled the invalid, and when Byrne turned towards him, he saw the old man sitting erect, with an expression of wild triumph. There came an indescribable cry from the girl, and a deep throated curse from Buck Daniels as he slammed down the window.

With the chill blast shut off and the flame burning steadily once more in the lamp, a great silence besieged the room, with a note of expectancy in it. Byrne was conscious of being warm, too warm. It was close in the room, and he was weighted down. It was as if another presence had stepped into the room and stood invisible. He felt it with unspeakable keenness, as when one knows certainly the thoughts which pass in the mind of another. And, more than that, he knew that the others in the room felt what he felt. In the waiting silence he saw that the old man lay on his couch with eyes of fire and gaping lips, as if he drank the wine of his joyous expectancy. And big Buck Daniels stood with his hand on the sash of the window, frozen there, his eyes bulging, his heart thundering in his throat. And Kate Cumberland sat with her eyes closed, as she had closed them when the wind first rushed upon her, and she still smiled as she had smiled then. And to Byrne, more terrible than the joy of Joseph Cumberland or the dread of Buck Daniels was the smile and the closed eyes of the girl.

But the silence held and the fifth presence was in the room, and not one of them dared speak.

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