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The Master of Silence: A Romance, a novel by Irving Bacheller

Chapter 3

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One morning in early October, nearly two years after I left Liverpool that memorable night, I found myself in the little city of Ogdensburg, N. Y., past which the majestic St. Lawrence flows with a sleepy movement quite in harmony with the spirit of the old town on its southern shore. All this time I had been vainly beating about the Western Hemisphere in quest of my uncle. He had left Detroit many years before, but I chanced to meet a number of men there who had known him well. Although he had enjoyed a very large practice and a wide reputation for skill, he had made no friends that I could find. He was a man of few words, they told me, and was never seen about the city except in the discharge of his professional duties. Various and conflicting opinions were expressed as to whither he had gone, in testing which I had visited no less than twenty cities, making careful inquiries, especially among medical men. Occasionally I struck what seemed to be a promising clew, which only increased my confusion and left me more hopelessly in the dark. I had reported my movements to Mr. Earl as often as once a week and I received letters from him frequently, encouraging me to continue the search and enclosing money with which to do so. But although I had written often to Hester Chaffin no word from her ever reached me. I was tired of this fruitless quest among strangers, so far from the little that I held dear, and I was on the point of giving up when this paragraph fell under my eye in a Montreal newspaper:

"One who has ever passed the city of Ogdensburg by steamer will no doubt recall a large gambrel-roofed house standing near the water's edge, just out of the town, surrounded by towering trees and enclosed on all sides by a wall nearly as high as the eaves of the building. The wall suggests an asylum, a house of detention or some like place set apart for the unfortunate members of society. In reality, however, it is the residence of a mysterious recluse of the name of Lane, who shut himself up there nearly eighteen years ago and has since been rarely seen. It was built after his own plans, they say, when he came to Ogdensburg with his wife, who died soon afterward. Nobody knows whence he came or anything of his past history. He is apparently a total stranger here below, holding no intercourse with the world beyond that enclosure. His wife is said to have been a woman of great beauty, and her death doubtless threw him into a morbid state of mind, from which he has never rallied. Many years ago he is known to have bought a full-grown African lion from a traveling menagerie, and, soon after, he erected the wall, presumably out of regard for the public safety. Passers along the street have caught an occasional glimpse of him through the high gate, walking in the grounds surrounding his house, with the lion at his heels apparently in complete subjection to its master. A dense thicket runs along the wall on all sides within the enclosure, which, according to local tradition, is alive with rattlesnakes, bred for some strange purpose known only to himself--perhaps to make his isolation more secure.

"He is supposed to have resigned the companionship of men for study and scientific research. He has no children, and his only servant being a deaf-mute, who is almost an idiot, there is little chance at present of learning anything of his life. For more than two years nothing has been seen of the mysterious master of the house. His disappearance would, we think, be a legitimate subject of investigation by the authorities of the town. May he not have been eaten by the lion, or killed by the rattlesnakes? Who knows?"

My heart was beating fast and my hands shook as if stricken with palsy before I had finished the paragraph. The strange old man who had come to me in Liverpool that night was probably the mute servant to which the article referred. In an hour I was on the way to Ogdensburg, quite confident that the issue of my wanderings was at hand. I reached that town next morning nearly two years, as I have said, after the beginning of my journey to the New World. Not stopping to breakfast even, I started out to find the house, which my busy imagination had already pictured for itself. The first townsman I saw directed me to the place.

"Follow the turnpike," said he. "'Sa mild or more--straight ahead. You'll know it when y' git there. 'S' queer place an' stan's off by itself."

The man was going my way, evidently to begin his day's work, for it was then early in the morning, and I walked along with him.

"Folks say," he continued, "them grounds is full of hejious reptyles, an' I've heerd fellers tell queer things they've seen when passin' there at night--red lights a-flyin' about an' spooks at the winders. An' one night, when Uncle Bill Jemson was comin' down the turnpike, they was a storm come up, an' jest as he got opposite the big iron gate they was a flash a lightnin'--an' Bill says he see the ole man, his long white hair a-flyin' in th' wind, an' a lion standin' there in front a th' house. Th' flash was out'n a minit, an' Bill whipped up his hosses an' sent em clear to Mills' tavern on the dead run," said he, laughing as if it were a good joke.

"They don't nobody like th' place ner th' man, though I don' know why, fer no one's ever passed a word with him in these parts. There 'tis, over yender with the pines around it an' th' high wall," said he, pointing with his finger. But my eye had already discovered the low-built rambling house on the high banks of the river, well in the distance, and had recognized it at once.

Leaving my companion at the next turn in the road I walked hurriedly on, and when I had reached the big iron gate I stopped and peered through it. A gravel roadway, now overgrown with weeds, led from the gate to the front of the house, which stood facing me. It was built entirely of wood and consisted of four wings (at least there were no others visible) evidently enclosing a quadrangular courtyard, the rear wings being lower than those in front, and hidden by the latter from the view of one standing at the gate as I was. It was only at a distance that one could see their roofs above the enclosure. There was but one line of windows along the front, but there was an oriel just under the peak of the main building, and I could see a skylight here and there upon the roofs.

The blinds were closed and there was no sign of life about the house--evidently planned with hospitable intentions, but now silent and forbidding. I tried the gates. They were locked securely. A screen of closely woven wire rose from the pavement half way up the iron work. Evidently it would be impossible to reach the doors without scaling this barrier, and I was not yet ready to try an expedient so desperate. Returning to my hotel I wrote a letter to the master of the house, telling him of my long-continued quest and of my hopes regarding our possible kinship. Day after day I anxiously awaited his reply, until a week had passed, but no word came from him. In passing the house at different times, however, I observed some signs of life within it--a blind open that had been closed the day before--a faint glimmer of light on the trees in the rear of the grounds at night, which might have come from the back windows. Even this slight encouragement was gratifying, but as time passed without bringing any reply to my letter I began to think that, after all, my hopes rested on very shadowy foundations. One day I asked the local postmaster if a man of the name of Lane, who lived near that city, ever sent for his mail.

"Never," said he. "The man is crazy, I guess, and it's wasting postage to write him. He's a hermit, sir--a regular hermit, and is about the same as dead, for nobody ever sees him. The tradesmen tell me that his old servant comes out of an evening, once in a while, to buy provisions, but he's deaf as a post and dumb as an oyster." The interview had at least shown me the futility of trying to reach him by letter.

It was clear that only one course was open to me. I must brave the unknown perils with which this strange man had encompassed the path of the trespasser, and gain an entrance to the house. I sought the seclusion of my room at once, and thought over the result of my investigations. I had not written to my good friend in London since my arrival in Ogdensburg, and I concluded not to do so until I could give him definite information.

Late in the afternoon a slow, drizzling rain began to pour down, and when night fell every luminary in the heavens was obscured by thick clouds. It was a favorable time for carrying out my project, as the darkness was intensified by a fog that had settled over the city. By the light of my lamp I prepared for the undertaking, in such a state of excitement that I was frequently startled by my own whispers, through which I found myself now and then giving involuntary utterance to my thoughts. Cutting up a pair of boots which I carried in my box, I wound my legs in leather from my ankles up above my knees, carefully drawing on a pair of thick, long stockings to hold it in place. This precaution would give me a comfortable sense of security, even if there were no snakes to fear. I felt sure that the lion, if he were still living, would be kept in some place of confinement.

It was long past bedtime, and the lights were out in every shop and dwelling, when I started on my daring mission. The little lamps that glared through the fog at the street corners could scarcely be seen twenty feet away. I was so preoccupied that I frequently lost my direction in the mud and darkness. It seemed as if I had been traveling for hours, when at last I felt the big wall, and saw its dim bulk rising above me and stretching away into the night. Cautiously I groped along its base until my hands felt the iron bars of the gate. Then I stood for some moments leaning against them, quite out of breath. They were cold and wet, and chilled me to a shiver when I touched them. I peered toward the house but could see nothing. I listened, but could hear nothing except the beating of my own heart and the mournful sound of the pines whose loftier branches were stirring in the still air. Grasping the heavy bars I tried to climb the gate, but, as there were no projections on which it was possible to get a foothold, I found this an exhausting and difficult task. I climbed repeatedly several feet above the earth, only to lose my foothold and slide down again. Finally, by exerting all my strength, I succeeded in supporting myself with the edge of my boot upon a crossbar about half way up; then, taking a small rope from my pocket I threw one end of it over the gate, holding the other in my teeth. Tying it securely by a noose I climbed hand over hand to the top and then let myself down on the other side. I was quite exhausted by the effort (unaccustomed as I was to such burglarious enterprises) and my fingers were torn and bleeding from forcing a hold between the iron work and the wire screen. I remembered the gravel pathway, overgrown with grass, that led from the big gate to a front door. I groped about in the darkness until I felt the gravel under my feet. Then I moved cautiously along it, until I could dimly discern the outlines of the house. My nerves were so wrought up, while I stood there holding my breath to catch some sound from its gloomy interior, that I was near crying out in abject terror at every step. An owl, startled from the limb of a tree over my head, flew lazily into the upper air and across the thicket, disturbing other birds that set up a chattering protest. Stealthily I crept from window to window, but the blinds were closed fast. Finally I came to a door that seemed to open into the main part of the building. Desperate under the strain to which my nerves had been subjected, I knocked loudly on its upper panels. The sound echoed through the still house and the thickly wooded grounds around it. "God help me!" I whispered; "will that echo never cease?" It kept repeating itself from tree to tree, until I covered my ears to stop its weird reverberations. Then I heard a low threatening sound, deep and resonant as the lower tones of a great organ, that gradually grew louder until its volume filled the air, and then died away, while its echoes went chasing each other among the trees. In the silence which followed, my ear caught another sound the like of which I had never heard before. A dozen clocks being wound by quick turns on all sides of me would, I fancy, have produced a similar effect. It was evident to me that my knocking had disturbed my uncle's pets, but I was not to be frightened away. Hearing no movement in the house I tried the door, and to my astonishment it swung open. A peculiar odor, such as one notices in a house that has long stood empty, came to my nostrils, and again I heard that fateful whirring, but in the darkness I could discern no object. As I crossed the threshold the sound grew louder, and to my horror the door closed suddenly behind me. Hurriedly striking a match, I held it above my head and peered about me. Its light revealed a small apartment finished in polished wood. Along the angle of the floor was an opening, two or three inches high, into the side walls. And half way up the wall in front of me I saw a face--the face of a maniac it seemed to be--pale and wan, with strange, inhuman eyes. I had scarcely glanced at it when the match dropped from my fingers and fell slowly through the air, going out as it struck the floor. My hands were cold, but so wet with perspiration that they stuck to my clothing when I felt for a candle which I had brought with me.

There are moments in every man's life that move slowly, as if carrying the weight of years upon their backs. I shall never cease to believe that the few seconds it took me to light that candle must stand for as many years in any correct reckoning of my age. When its beams at last illumined the room, the strange face was still there. Had I seen it before? It was marvellously like that other face which had haunted my dreams so long. If it was the face of a man he must be standing on the other side of the wall and looking through a panel.

"Is Mr. Lane at home?" I asked in an unnatural tone that startled me.

But no word of reply was spoken.

"I am his nephew and I have important news for him."

The face disappeared for a moment, and presently a shrunken hand, holding a white sheet of paper, was extended through the opening. I stepped forward, took the sheet and, withdrawing to the centre of the room, sat down upon the floor and wrote the following message in bold characters with my pencil:

"Kendric Lane, son of Kendric Lane (deceased), late of London, England, wishes to see Dr. Lane on business of importance."

I handed the message to the strange man behind the wall, who immediately disappeared with it, closing the panel. "The worst is over," thought I, while I stood in that mysterious and silent chamber waiting for his return. But I should not have thought so had I known what was still to be revealed to me before the dawn of another day, and in the months that followed, during which that house and its echoing groves were my home. And I sometimes ask myself, in the light of later events of which that visit was indirectly the cause, whether, had I been able to foresee them, I would still have persevered in my purpose to know the secrets of my uncle's house? _

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