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by Robert Whitaker


Once fairly inside the room, he straightened up and stood in breathless silence, listening with every sense on the alert. There was no sound except the throbbing of his own heart, which beat so loudly that it added to his nervousness. He was tempted, even yet, to go back. But the job had proven so easy thus far, and the field seemed to be so clear before him, it looked like the height of unreason for him to falter just when success was in his grasp. Besides, he had crossed the Rubicon, and was a criminal now. He shuddered at the word. Yet he fortified his failing courage with it. He had broken into a strange house in the night, where were two defenceless women, with the intent of robbing them of such part of their wealth as he could seize. If he were caught the law would certainly regard him as a burglar, and justly so. If he retreated he would still be a criminal, and also a coward. Then, he must have the money, or else — He shivered again, at the thought of the alternative. He would do nothing more than scare the women, if that much were necessary. If he could get the money without disturbing them, so much the better.

The moonlight flooded the room, making it no difficult matter for him to get his bearings. He swept in at a glance the comfort and elegance of the apartment. He stood in a private parlor, with a chamber, whose door was slightly open, to the right, and on the other side a bath and toilet room. The door in front of him, he judged, led directly into the hall. He walked quickly, but softly, across the room, and tried the knob with careful hand. The door was locked. Perhaps he could find access to the hall through the bedroom. He turned about, and his heart stood still as he looked at the window through which he had come. It was covered from top to bottom with a close network of iron bars. Or was it an illusion of the moonlight? He hurried across, forgetful of stealthiness now. The bars were real, and seemed as solid as if they were part of the brick walls. He tried the chamber, but found that there also the door was locked, and the windows solidly barred on the inside. The bathroom was equally hopeless as a way of escape. He was too bewildered to think of picking the lock of one of the doors leading into the hall. How could the window have been barred behind him, without a sound? However done, it was certainly a neat trap.

He sat down to wait the appearance of his captors, expecting every minute the entrance of the police. There was no sound in the house. Half an hour passed, and it seemed to him, in the turmoil of his thoughts and the intensity of his anxiety, half an eternity. There was the same dead silence. Perhaps the trap had worked so quietly that they did not know he was caught. He might yet escape. His hand rubbed against the keys which were in his pocket. He tried one on the door of the parlor. It was too large. He tried another. This also was too large. The third went in. The lock turned. His heart throbbed with hope, and he grew almost dizzy with the sense of relief. It was only for an instant. The door was fastened on the other side. Again he tried the door of the bedroom. The same key fitted it, with the same result. He might dig his way out. But a very brief examination of the windows and the walls convinced him that with any tools at his command it would be a work of days, not of hours. And they would certainly find him in the morning.

Then, with a grim laugh at his situation, after he had carefully examined each room again, and searched even the empty closet for some way of escape, he went to bed. He was cold, and sick at heart, and felt himself succumbing to the reaction which naturally followed the nervous strain under which he had labored ever since this unlucky project had seized upon him. If they came for him that night they might as well find him in bed and asleep, as shivering there with nervous collapse. And he would be better prepared to meet the morning with some measure of courage if he could get a little rest and sleep. Ah, but the bed was luxurious! So much the better. He would find the prison cot hard enough the next night. And then, in spite of excitement and dread, he fell asleep.

When he waked in the morning, daylight filled the room. He knew a moment afterward by the bars against the window where he was. It was odd that he had been allowed to rest so long. And then, as he reached up to where he had hung his clothes, a greater surprise fell upon him. His clothes were gone. The hooks themselves were gone. He jumped out and looked around the room hurriedly. Why, there they were, on the other side of the bed! But he was positive that he had hung them between the bed and the window. Yet there they were, in plain sight. But they were not the same clothes. He had worn a dingy brown suit. These were a soft dark gray. His own clothes were faded and threadbare. These were quite new. The underwear, too, was of finer texture and of another make from any that he had worn. And his hat and shoes were missing. In place of his shoes stood a pair of trim, comfortable slippers. There was nothing at all in the way of a covering for his head.

He put the clothes on, as one might dress in a dream. Indeed, he was not sure that he was really awake. Perhaps the very thought of the robbery was only a nightmare. If it only were!  But there was the tumbled bed, from which he had just risen. And there, in the doorway between the two rooms, was the black mask which he had dropped in his confusion the night before. And as he stooped to pick it up he saw on the opposite side of the little parlor a breakfast table, daintily set. The dishes were covered, but proved to be yet warm. Who could have placed them there? And who had made the exchange of his clothes? The clothes, he reasoned, might have been changed in the night while he slept. But the breakfast could not have been there, at the most, to exceed half an hour.

He ate a little timidly, though he felt that so many attentions could hardly portend any evil purpose against him. He was in a rather reckless mood anyway, and did not much care whether the food was drugged or not. But he felt no ill effects from it. He wondered that his captors could trust him with knife and fork, and found himself planning how he might use them to dig his way out. This led him to examine the barred windows once again in the clearer light of the morning. The result was to deepen his sense of the hopelessness of escape. Whoever had planned the trap had planned it to perfection. There was no way out except by the door. And the door, he knew, was fastened on the other side. Yet as he turned about he saw that the table and the dishes were gone. Had the door opened while his back was turned? He tried it, but found it just as unyielding as before. And he noticed now certain spider threads near the top which seemed to indicate that it could not have been opened for some time. But how had the table disappeared? Was he in a haunted house? Or were these women some sort of spiritualistic mediums who were enjoying themselves at his expense?

He passed a restless day, pacing up and down his comfortably furnished cage with little regard for its luxuries. His dinner appeared and disappeared as quietly and mysteriously as the breakfast table had come and gone. When he returned to his chamber a little while afterward he found that the bed had been put in order while he ate. Here was certainly a full measure of mysteries. He began to seriously wonder if the house were possessed.

The mystery of the disappearing table was explained that evening. He was on the watch as the supper hour drew near. His eyes grew weary by reason of his steady gaze upon the door. As he glanced aside an instant to rest them he saw the floor open, and a moment later the top of the table came in sight. The movement was practically noiseless, even when the table, having risen to a proper height, stopped as mysteriously as it had risen into view. When the table was in place the aperture under it was sealed so completely that it required careful examination to see where the break in the floor occurred. As soon as his meal was finished, and before he had time to put himself altogether on guard the table began to sink. He leaned over as the top of the table sank below the level of the floor, hoping that he might get some glimpse of how the marvel worked, but he saw only the closed sides of a shaft into which the table glided as into a box. As soon as the height of the dishes would allow, the floor glided softly into place from either side. He was too much astonished to make any motion, and the floor was so quickly and perfectly replaced that he could hardly persuade himself that the thing had happened at all.

He had been so busily occupied with the mysteriousness of his situation that the circumstances which had driven him to his attempted crime had quite slipped his mind. But the long, quiet evening recalled them, and his thoughts concerning the revelations which must follow his unexplained disappearance, together with his perplexity as to the strange imprisonment which had befallen him, kept him tossing on the comfortable bed for many an hour before he was able to forget himself in sleep.

He found his clothes in place the next morning, but discovered in one of the pockets of the vest a lady’s watch, which he was sure had not been there the day before. He had missed his own timepiece a good deal, although it was of very little value, and quite unreliable as a timekeeper. This was a dainty affair, the case of gold, and the movement one of the best.

He made one other discovery which gave him much less pleasure than the watch. This was a copy of the morning paper, lying on the shelf just above where his clothes hung. It was folded inside out, and the first item that he saw was a marked article, at the head of which was a fairly good likeness of himself. The article recited in the usual manner that Walter Sherman, for three years past in the employ of Callings, Weller & Co., had suddenly disappeared, and that the funds of the firm were five hundred dollars short on his account. The police had ascertained that the young man had been gambling a little, and it was supposed that he had lost the money at the table. He had left his boarding house on the evening of the fourth and not a trace of him had been found since then. His employers believed that he had fled to avoid disgrace, and were satisfied that he had taken very little, if any, money with him.

His face burned as he read the story, and his breakfast came and went untasted. Then these mysterious people knew who he was, and from this article they had learned both the motive which led him to seek to rob them, and the kind of life he had been living for the last few months.

But why had they not turned him over at once to the police? Were they keeping him there to torture him with long uncertainty? Did they intend to torment him from day to day by continual reminders of his weakness, and wickedness, and helplessness in their hands? Why, then, had they so studied his comfort and convenience? What meant the new suit of clothes? Why such generous provision for his meals? Why had they sent him, on this particular morning, in company with the condemning paper, so costly and beautiful a timepiece? And why a lady’s timepiece to take the place of his own?

His head ached with the effort to solve these mysteries. He bowed his face in his hands, and sat unmoving for a long time. When he did raise his head there were traces of tears in his eyes, the first that he had shed for years. Yet he could not have told why he had shed them. He knew that he was heartily ashamed of himself, and utterly discouraged by the miserable shipwreck which he had made.

The table was there again. The untasted breakfast dishes had been removed. In their place were a dish of choice fruit and a book. The book was “Les Misèrables.” He had heard of the great romance, but had never read it. The title attracted him now.  Miserable he thought he could have recognized in any language. But why had this book been chosen? Was it because of the title? Or had the book itself some message for him? He ate of the fruit sparingly, not because he desired it just then, but because he could not altogether refuse the kindness. And then he took the book over to the window and looked it through from end to end. A name had been written on the fly leaf, and lately erased. Some bits of the rubber still clung to the page. But the name had been thoroughly rubbed out.

He spent the day alternately wondering and reading. His windows overlooked an enclosed yard. He remembered climbing the fence on the night of the attempted burglary, after he had carefully reconnoitered the house. He had wondered then why the yard was so thoroughly enclosed. Because of the fence he had not thought it so strange to find the window above the porch unfastened. They evidently thought the fence sufficient security on that side of the house. He wondered now if possibly there were children in the house, and if the yard were for them. He had satisfied himself before his venture that the two women were alone. But if so why this high, tight board fence? Was this yard their recreation ground? Why such seclusion from the public? And what part did this magic room in which he found himself ordinarily play in their solitary lives?

Some of these questions seemed to be answered by the appearance, about the middle of the afternoon, of the two women in the yard below. They were both heavily veiled, and soon passed out of sight among the trees. An hour later they returned, their faces covered, and without so much as a glance in his direction entered the house. They were dressed alike, and were of nearly the same size. What their ages might be it was impossible to guess with any degree of assurance, but he was quite sure that one was a young woman by her more erect and vigorous walk.

The next day he felt better, and ate his meals as usual. He even meditated an attempt to descend with the table, and solve some of the mysteries by force. But he discovered that in some secret way his movements were known. Otherwise he could not account for the fact that while any article was missing from the table it would not descend. Nor did it ever tarry long after he was through eating and his napkin was in place. He made a close examination of the floor beside his bed and satisfied himself that the bed descended and was raised like the table. But he found that the door of the bedroom was locked, once when he essayed to go in, at which time the bed was evidently set in order. One afternoon he was quite certain that he heard some one moving in the room, and he knew afterwards that the chamber had been carefully dusted throughout. That night he retired early, and was soon aware that some one was in the parlor. But when he tried to peer out cautiously he found that this time he was locked in the chamber. Yet there was no key in the door, and no sound of the turning of the lock.

So matters went with him for a week, with no change in his outward circumstances. But the book had taken great hold upon him. He clutched at the story of Jean Valjean as a drowning man at a rope. And though he went down into depths of despair as the days went by and no word came to him from any living creature, and the mystery of his strange imprisonment deepened about him, he felt that the book had been given him as an assurance that he might yet have the chance to redeem himself, and his wrecked reputation. Hope beat high in his heart on the eighth day, when again the morning paper appeared, this time with the information that some friend of Walter Sherman had settled the sum of his indebtedness to Callings, Weller & Co., without giving any name, and the search for him had been abandoned. He thought he understood now why he had been detained, and confidently expected his release as soon as the excitement concerning him had blown over. He half anticipated being transported in some strange fashion to distant parts, and went to bed each night for a week or two with a suspicion that he might wake in some unfamiliar city. For he judged from the fact that whenever the women walked in his sight they were closely covered that they were determined not to be known to him. And therefore he was sure that when released he would in some way be put beyond the reach of their acquaintance. This made him only the more anxious to know them, for he could not doubt that these women, against whom he had attempted a contemptible crime, had not only suffered him to escape a term in the penitentiary, but had themselves hid the amount of his stealings from his employers. And, besides, they had given him a message of hope which he could never forget. He marveled at their ingenuity as much as he admired their modesty, while he waited with all the patience of a now thoroughly grateful man for his release.

But his release did not come. He found another book upon his table. It was a less famous story, but had in it the same note of manliness and strength. The next day brought some volumes of history. Then followed one or two books of verse. Within a week he had a small library of the best literature in his room. But the presence of so many books disturbed him more than any of them entertained him. Here were books enough to last a year. They could not mean to keep him cooped up for their entertainment like a bird in a cage. If he was really to redeem himself he must have a larger field than these rooms. And, besides, the loneliness of his life and the want of exercise were telling upon him. He began to feel rebellious and to plot again for forcing some way of escape.

Just then an odd thing happened. The younger of the two women, as he thought, appeared one afternoon, not in the usual black like her companion, but in a soft, dark gray, which he recognized at once as being, so far as color and material were concerned the exact counterpart of the suit which he wore. She paid no more attention to him than before, although he felt that this time she was conscious of his presence at the window. The next morning he found a dressing gown hanging upon one of the hooks beside his clothes. It was a very beautiful piece of work, in which red was the prevailing color. That afternoon the younger woman wore a wrap over her gray dress which was almost a duplicate of his dressing robe.

He was both vexed and amused. What did it mean? Was the girl trying to flirt with him? Or was she playing with him, as a cat does with a mouse? Perhaps she would send him up some of her dresses to wear later. He laughed bitterly to think how completely he was in her power. Yet the books did not read like literature provided by an unbalanced or an unprincipled woman. He had noticed that many of the books were marked. The markings were sensible and suggestive, neither preachy nor sentimental. His old perplexity returned with redoubled force.

So things went with him for two months. It was early summer now. He found flowers often on his table. Other flowers just like them the young woman wore in her afternoon walks. The question of exercise had been solved, without his being able to enter any complaint. He had tried once to speak through the door when he thought some one was in the chamber, but his voice echoed so oddly in the room that he could not distinguish the words himself. There was no response from the other side of the door. But one day he found in the closet a miniature gymnasium. The walls had been fitted up with chest weights, and other contrivances for indoor exercise. There was a small book on manual training. On the fly leaf, in a pretty feminine hand, was written his name. The gymnasium seemed to add to the probability which the increase of his library suggested, that the time of his release was yet quite distant. Yet he could not imagine why they were keeping him there, or fix in his own mind any limit to the term which they had fixed for his imprisonment.

 The summer waned and went with no relief. There was only one change in his situation. Every afternoon now some one sang in the room below. It was a girl’s voice, not very strong, but very rich and sweet. He knew it must be the younger of the two women who sang. The music was quite varied, but in the main very simple. Sometimes she sang, for a whole afternoon, only the old hymns which he had known and loved in his boyhood days. It seemed to him that his mother sang her lullabies again. Then the songs were light and frolicsome, as if they were playmates, and she were laughing with him. Anon she sang of battle and of strife, and her music stirred him like the beat of a drum. But, somehow, she always seemed to sing for him. And then she would appear in the garden, wearing something that was the counterpart of something which he wore, or with flowers upon her bosom like the flowers in his room.

He thought all manner of strange thoughts in those long months. It seemed so absurd that he should be cribbed up in this crazy sort of a way, and courted, if it was courting, as never man was courted before. He would have written her some message, but nothing in the shape of pen or pencil was ever provided him. He tried once to print something in one of the books, with a pin which he found, but no attention was paid to it. He planned several ingenious escapes, but they were all anticipated, and somehow he felt ashamed of his efforts, because of some added kindness which followed. And so he read and read, and wondered more than he read, while the summer gave way to fall, and the fall to an early winter. His room was comfortably warmed and ventilated in ways not altogether clear to him. The women walked in the garden less now, but the songs continued every day. His beard grew long and silky, for no razor had been provided him, perhaps for fear that he might do himself harm. He grew a little fleshier, but since taking up his exercise he had regained a good deal of his wonted strength. And in spite of many periods of impatience, and a good deal of intermittent aggravation, the joy and strength and peace of her songs and the calm of his deep solitude were borne in upon his soul, so that he came to feel in him reserves of manhood which he had never realized before.

 And then, one morning, just a year from the night of his fateful adventure, he found a fresh change of clothes throughout. This time there were provided hat and shoes and outer coat. Some of the things he had carried in his pockets the night he entered the house had been restored. But the little gold watch still replaced his own. He ate his breakfast with a good deal of nervous excitement, anticipating some marked change in his position, and wondering what it would be. He glanced up at the window, and lo, the bars were gone. He went out as he had come in, but with less secretiveness of manner. A ladder reached from the porch to the ground. At the foot of the ladder he turned to seek the door. He would make frank confession, and acknowledgment of their kindness before he went away. No one answered his repeated knocks. While he stood there hesitating a gate in the fence swung open silently, and seemed to beckon him forth. He went out and the gate closed behind him, with a click which told him it was locked. He went around the house, and tried the door on the other side. It looked as if it had not been opened for years. There was no answer. The windows showed only closed shutters. He knocked again, with the same poor success. And then, with many a backward glance, he went away.



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All text contents of these pages copyright © 2008 by R.J. Warren, all rights reserved.

All graphic contents of these pages copyright © 2008 by R.J. Warren, all rights reserved.