Situated on a level track of land at the crossing of three roads, its spacious front, rude and unpainted as it was, presented every appearance of an inn, but from its moss-grown chimneys no smoke arose, nor could I detect any sign of life in its shutterless windows and closed doors, across which shivered the dark shadow of the one gaunt and aged pine, that stood like a guard beside its tumbled-down porch.
Mr. Blake seemed to have been struck by the same fact concerning its loneliness, for hurriedly replacing his pistol in his breast pocket, he rode slowly forward. I instantly conceived the plan of striking across the belt of underbrush that separated me from this old dwelling, and by taking my stand opposite its front, intercept a view of Mr. Blake as he approached. Hastily dismounting, therefore, I led my horse into the bushes and tied her to a tree, proceeding to carry out my plan on foot. I was so far successful as to arrive at the further edge of the wood, which was thick enough to conceal my presence without being too dense to obstruct my vision, just as Mr. Blake passed on his way to this solitary dwelling. He was looking very anxious, but determined. Turning my eyes from him, I took another glance at the house, which by this movement I had brought directly before me. It was even more deserted-looking than I had thought; its unpainted front with its double row of blank windows meeting your gaze without a response, while the huge old pine with half its limbs dismantled of foliage, rattled its old bones against its sides and moaned in its aged fashion like the solitary retainer of a dead race.
I own I felt the cold shivers creep down my back as that creaking sound struck my ears, though as the day was chill with an east wind I dare say it was more the effect of my sudden cessation from exercise, than of any superstitious awe I felt. Mr. Blake seemed to labor under no such impressions. Riding up to the front door he knocked without dismounting, on its dismal panels with his riding whip. No response was heard. Knitting his brows impatiently, he tried the latch: the door was locked. Hastily running his eye over the face of the building, he drew rein and proceeded to ride around the house, which he could easily do owing to the absence of every obstruction in the way of fence or shrubbery. Finding no means of entrance he returned again to the front door which he shook with an impatient hand that however produced no impression upon the trusty lock, and recognizing, doubtless, the futility of his endeavors, he drew back, and merely pausing to give one other look at its deserted front, turned his horse's head, and to my great amazement, proceeded with sombre mien and clouded brow to retake the road to Melville.
This old inn or decayed homestead was then the object of his lengthened and tedious journey; this ancient house rotting away among the bleak hills of Vermont, the bourne towards which his steps had been tending for these past two days. I could not understand it. Rapidly emerging from the spot where I had secreted myself, I in my turn made a circuit of the house, if happily I should discover some loophole of entrance which had escaped his attention. But every door and window was securely barred, and I was about to follow his example and leave the spot, when I saw two or three children advancing towards me down the cross roads, gaily swinging their school books. I noticed they hesitated and huddled together as they approached and saw me, but not heeding this, I accosted them with a pleasant word or so, then pointing over my shoulder to the house behind, asked who lived there. Instantly their already pale faces grew paler.
"Why," cried one, a boy, "don't you know? That is where the two wicked men lived who stole the money out of the Rutland bank. They were put in prison, but they got away and--"
Here, the other, a little girl, plucked him by the sleeve with such affright, that he himself took alarm and just giving me one quick stare out of his wide eyes, grasped his companion by the hand and took to his heels. As for myself I stood rooted to the ground in my astonishment. This blank, sleepy old house the home of the notorious Schoenmakers after whom half of the detectives of the country were searching? I could scarcely credit my own ears. True I now remembered they had come from these parts, still--
Turning round I eyed the house once more. How altered it looked to me! What a murderous aspect it wore, and how dismally secret were the tight shut windows and closely fastened doors, on one of which a rude cross scrawled in red chalk met the eye with a mysterious significance. Even the old pine had acquired the villainous air of the uncanny repositor of secrets too dreadful to reveal, as it groaned and murmured to itself in the keen east wind. Dark deeds and foul wrong seemed written all over the fearful place, from the long strings of black moss that clung to the worm-eaten eaves, to the worn stone with its great blotch of something,--could it have been blood?--that served as a threshold to the door. Suddenly with the quickness of lightning the thought flashed across me, what could Mr. Blake, the aristocratic representative of New York's oldest family, have wanted in this nest of infamy? What errand of hope, fear, despair, avarice or revenge, could have brought this superior gentleman with his refined tastes and proudly reticent manners, so many miles from home, to the forsaken den of a brace of hardy villains whose name for two years now, had stood as the type of all that was bold, bad and lawless, and for whom during the last six weeks the prison had yawned, and the gallows hungered. Contemplation brought no reply, and shocked at my own thoughts, I put the question by for steadier brains than mine; and instead of trying further to solve it, cast about how I was to gain entrance into this deserted building; for to enter it I was more than ever determined, now that I had heard to whom it had once belonged.
Examining with a glance the several roads that branched off in every direction from where I stood, I found them all equally deserted. Even the school children had disappeared in some one of the four or five houses scattered in the remote distance.
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