The night horseman, p.5
The Night Horseman,
The doctor removed his coat with absent-minded slowness, and all thetime that he was removing the dust and the stains of travel, he keptnarrowing the eye of his mind to visualise more clearly that cumbersomechain which lay on the floor of the adjoining room. Now, the doctor wasnot of a curious or gossipy nature, but if someone had offered to tellhim the story of that chain for a thousand dollars, the doctor at thatmoment would have thought the price ridiculously small.
Then the doctor went down to the dinner table prepared to keep one eyeupon Buck Daniels and the other upon Kate Cumberland. But if he expectedto learn through conversation at the table he was grievouslydisappointed, for Buck Daniels ate with an eye to strict business thatallowed no chatter, and the girl sat with a forced smile and an absenteye. Now and again Buck would glance up at her, watch her for aninstant, and then turn his attention back to his plate with a sort ofgloomy resolution; there were not half a dozen words exchanged from thebeginning 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 weredrawn so low that the eyes were buried in profound shadow. They tookpositions in a loose semi-circle, all pointing towards the sick man, andit reminded Byrne with grim force of a picture he had seen of threewolves waiting for the bull moose to sink in the snows: they, also, werewaiting for a death. It seemed, indeed, as if death must have alreadycome; at least it could not make him more moveless than he was. Againstthe dark wall his profile was etched by a sharp highlight which wasbrightest of all on his forehead and his nose; while the lower portionof the face was lost in comparative shadow.
So perfect and so detailed was the resemblance to death, indeed, thatthe lips in the shadow smiled--fixedly. It was not until Kate Cumberlandshifted a lamp, throwing more light on her father, that Byrne saw thatthe smile was in reality a forcible compression of the lips. Heunderstood, suddenly, that the silent man on the couch was strugglingterribly against an hysteria of emotion. It brought beads of sweat outupon the doctor's tall forehead; for this perfect repose suggested anagony more awful than yells and groans and struggles. The silence waslike acid; it burned without a flame. And Byrne knew, that moment, thequality of the thing which had wasted the rancher. It was this acid ofgrief or yearning which had eaten deep into him and was now close to hisheart. The girl had said that for six months he had been failing. Sixmonths! Six eternities of burning at the stake!
He lay silent, waiting; and his resignation meant that he knew deathwould come before that for which he waited. Silence, that was thekey-note of the room. The girl was silent, her eyes dark with grief; yetthey were not fixed upon her father. It came thrilling home to Byrnethat her sorrow was not entirely for her dying parent, for she lookedbeyond him rather than at him. Was she, too, waiting? Was that what gaveher the touch of sad gravity, the mystery like the mystery of distance?
And Buck Daniels. He, also, said nothing. He rolled cigarettes one afteranother with amazing dexterity and smoked them with half a dozen Titanicbreaths. His was a single-track mind. He loved the girl, and he bore thesign of his love on his face. He wanted her desperately; it was a hungerlike that of Tantalus, too keen to be ever satisfied. Yet, still morethan 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; hegathered information from the empty air.
So that Byrne was hardly surprised, when, in the midst of that grimsilence, the old man raised a rigid forefinger of warning. Kate andDaniels stiffened in their chairs and Byrne felt his flesh creep. Ofcourse it was nothing. The wind, which had shaken the house with severalstrong gusts before dinner, had now grown stronger and blew withsteadily increasing violence; perhaps the sad old man had been attractedby the mournful chorus and imagined some sound he knew within it.
But now once more the finger was raised, the arm extended, shakingviolently, and Joe Cumberland turned upon them a glance which flashedwith 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 andlooked swiftly about the room with what seemed to Byrne an appeal forhelp. As for Buck Daniels, he changed from a dark bronze to an unhealthyyellow; fear, plain and grimly unmistakable, was in his face. Then hestrode to the window and threw it open with a crash. The wind leaped inand tossed the flame in the throat of the chimney, so that great shadowswaved suddenly through the room, and made the chairs seem afloat. Eventhe people were suddenly unreal. And the rush of the storm gave Byrne aneerie sensation of being blown through infinite space. For a momentthere was only the sound of the gale and the flapping of a loose pictureagainst 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, andyet 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. Fromsomewhere in the black depths before them came a laugh, made unhuman byechoes. And Byrne had visioned the mummied dead pushing back the granitelids 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 anddown his spine. It was the honking of the wild geese, flying north. Andout of the sound he builded a picture of the grey triangle cleavingthrough the cold upper sky, sent on a mission no man could understand.
"Was I right? Was I right?" shrilled the invalid, and when Byrne turnedtowards him, he saw the old man sitting erect, with an expression ofwild triumph. There came an indescribable cry from the girl, and a deepthroated curse from Buck Daniels as he slammed down the window.
With the chill blast shut off and the flame burning steadily once morein the lamp, a great silence besieged the room, with a note ofexpectancy in it. Byrne was conscious of being warm, too warm. It wasclose in the room, and he was weighted down. It was as if anotherpresence had stepped into the room and stood invisible. He felt it withunspeakable keenness, as when one knows certainly the thoughts whichpass in the mind of another. And, more than that, he knew that theothers in the room felt what he felt. In the waiting silence he saw thatthe old man lay on his couch with eyes of fire and gaping lips, as ifhe drank the wine of his joyous expectancy. And big Buck Daniels stoodwith his hand on the sash of the window, frozen there, his eyes bulging,his heart thundering in his throat. And Kate Cumberland sat with hereyes 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 terriblethan the joy of Joseph Cumberland or the dread of Buck Daniels was thesmile and the closed eyes of the girl.
But the silence held and the fifth presence was in the room, and not oneof them dared speak.
The Night Horseman by Max Brand / Western have rating 5 out of 5 / Based on30 votes