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Text - "The Lake Mystery" Marvin Dana


The player ended with a harsh clangor from the keys, and whirled about on the stool to stare intently toward the wall opposite the fireplace. Now, his pallid face in the glimpse that showed above the beard, was faintly flushed from the bodily strain of playing. But the fire burning in the dark eyes proved that the emotion within still maintained its vigor undiminished. Springing up, he drew his tall, thin form to its full height, and stood thus motionless for a long minute, gazing fixedly at the wall before him. Then, again with the swift movement of the head by which the white curls were thrown back from his brow, he strode forward, and came to a stand facing the naked wainscoting of the wall. In the long, barren room, devoid of other ornament, this paneling was of itself sufficient to command attention. Beyond a few scattered chairs, a solitary table with its lamp, the irons of the fireplace, a cabinet for music, the piano and the high lamp standing beside it, there was nothing in the place, not even so much as draperies to mask the ugliness of the window-shades. Such scarcity of furnishing was emphasized by the size of the apartment, which was fifty feet in length and half as wide. Doubtless, the occupant had preferred the space thus free from aught that might in any wise hamper the resonance of the music. Be that as it may, the ornateness of the wainscoting was made conspicuous, since only the piano offered another interest. Of black walnut, it ran to a height of at least seven feet out of the ten that measured the wall, and, extending around the four sides of the room, gave to the aspect of the place a quality of melancholy so extreme as to be almost funereal-an effect in no way lessened on closer observation, since the deep carving was merely a conventional labyrinth of scrolls. The manner in which Abernethey scanned the wall opposite him was too intent to be explained by any ordinary concern with woodwork long familiar. Moreover, his eyes were glowing fiercely; the talonlike fingers writhed curiously where they hung at his sides; the shaggy white brows were drawn low; from time to time, the tip of the thin nose was thrust downward in the movement peculiar to him. It was plain that he was in the grip of profound feeling, though he stood mute before a stark space of wall. The old man bestirred himself abruptly. His right arm was raised with swift grace; the dexterous fingers played for a moment silently, yet firmly, on the crowded traceries of the carving. A flurry of wind brought the rain clattering noisily against the window-panes, but the musician gave no heed; the clock rang softly from a single stroke of the gong, but his ears had no care for the hour. He was muttering to himself now, brokenly, despairingly, the while his fingers wandered over the intricate design of the paneling: "Mine-mine ... and I must leave it all-must leave it all-soon! Oh, so soon! God! The torture of it ... mine-all mine! Ah!" Without warning sound the panel on which his hand rested had swung outward, until it stood like a door, wide-open. An ejaculation of eagerness burst from Abernethey's lips, as he peered within the opening thus revealed through the wall. A large plate of polished steel glimmered in the dim light that came from the lamp beside the piano. A figured knob in the center of this plate proclaimed the fact that here was a cunningly contrived safety-vault. The old man's arm again reached forth with that astonishing quickness which characterized his every movement. Now, the agile fingers seized the knob of the safe door, twirling it with practised certainty of touch. Presently, the methodical adjustment complete, he tugged briskly on the knob, and the door swung outward. An exclamation of delight burst from Abernethey's lips; his form grew suddenly tense. With febrile haste, he put both hands to the lighter inner doors, and pulled them open. A small electric torch lay ready to hand just within, on which he seized. Immediately, its soft radiance revealed the whole interior of the recess. The space was well filled with canvas bags, of the sort commonly used to contain specie. Their appearance there, thus hidden and protected, left no doubt of the fact that they were the old man's chief treasure. For that matter, there was nothing else inside the vault, not even ledgers, or papers of any sort whatever. It was quite evident that Abernethey had no hesitation in trusting his other valuables to less-secret places of security. Here, he concealed with such elaborate precaution only actual coin. And now, secure from all observation at midnight in this remote region, where the isolation of time and place were intensified by the downpour of the tempest, the aged musician gave free rein to his consuming passion, stripped from his nature the last mask of hypocrisy, gloated and adored at beck of that devil who was his master. Abernethey nimbly caught up two of the bags, and bore them to the table that stood against the wall to the right of the vault, where he set them down with a softness of movement which was like a caress in its tenderness. Then, he sank into a chair beside the table, and began untying the cord that held shut the mouth of one of the bags. It was only a matter of seconds until the sack gaped open-he paused now, to stare about the room with furtive, fearful eyes. His scrutiny was directed principally toward the windows: his lips were drawn in a snarl as he realized that the shades had not been pulled down. He sprang to his feet, and darted to the nearest, where he arranged the shade to his satisfaction, mumbling and mouthing the while. Afterward, he made a round of the room, very swiftly, yet using all care to render himself secure from observation by anyone without. A glance at the doors having shown him that all these were shut fast, he at last strode back to the table, where the money-bags awaited him. The chair was drawn close; into it, Abernethey sagged heavily, as if in sudden relaxation from the taut energy that had urged him on hitherto. For a half-minute, he sat crouched over the table in an attitude of utter weariness, almost of collapse. But abruptly, he aroused himself from the clutch of lethargy. Once again, he held himself upright; again, his eyes searched the room craftily, alight with emotional fires. Finally, his arms rose swiftly, swooped forward and downward, until the talonlike fingers closed on the bags, which he drew tight to his breast where it pressed against the table. In this posture, which was like an embrace, he remained moment after moment, tense, alert, movelessly alive in every fibre of him. Then, putting term to the rapturous pause the old man sighed faintly, as one who, with infinite reluctance, awakes from ecstasy. He sat rigid, and pushed the two bags a slight distance from the edge of the table. For another little interval, he stared at them, half-doubtfully, in the manner of one returning slowly to reality after the illusions of a dream. A second sigh was breathed from his lips, not blissful now, but weighted with bleak despair. Presently, he tossed his head impatiently, and began fumbling with the string of the second bag. This yielded speedily, as had that of the first. In another instant, he had poured forth the contents of the two sacks; on the table before him lay twin heaps of gold. Afterward, for more than an hour, the miser gave full play to his vice. Before the smoldering fires of the metal, he worshiped devoutly, abjectly. His soul prostrated itself in adoration beneath the golden glory that he so loved and reverenced. At times, he plunged his fingers within the heaps, listening raptly to the clinking song of the coins as they were moved haphazard by the contact; at times, he sat dumb, crooning softly, as if these bits of metal had been sentient things to hark to his hymn of praise. Other vagaries were his, innumerable follies, nameless abasements before this, his most sacred shrine. Of a sudden, Abernethey sprang to his feet. Leaving the glittering piles on the table, he hurried to the piano, where he seated himself with face turned toward the altar of his worship. The supple fingers touched the keys anew; the melancholy air which he had played before sounded once again. But now, it was rendered simply, without extremes of emotion on the part of its interpreter, without variations in its harmonic forms. Instead, the old man played it slowly and gently throughout, repeating it monotonously many times. The morbid rhythm stood forth ghastly in its naked, sordid truth. It came as a hopeless confession of despair, the ultimate fact in the vice that was his master. Abernethey went back to the table, stacked coins until he had the measure of a bagful, and thus divided the gold, which was then returned to the sacks. Next, he brought forth other bags from the vault, until the table was covered. This done, he went out of the room, to reappear after a minute, wearing an old soft hat and a rain-coat with capacious pockets, in which he stored, one by one, the bags of gold.

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