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Malbone: An Oldport Romance Thomas Wentworth Higginson

XVII. Discovery

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THE next evening Kate and Philip went to a ball. As Hope was passing through the hall late in the evening, she heard a sudden, sharp cry somewhere in the upper regions, that sounded, she thought, like a woman's voice. She stopped to hear, but there was silence. It seemed to come from the direction of Malbone's room, which was in the third story. Again came the cry, more gently, ending in a sort of sobbing monologue. Gliding rapidly up stairs in the dark, she paused at Philip's deserted room, but the door was locked, and there was profound stillness. She then descended, and pausing at the great landing, heard other steps descending also. Retreating to the end of the hall, she hastily lighted a candle, when the steps ceased. With her accustomed nerve, wishing to explore the thing thoroughly, she put out the light and kept still. As she expected, the footsteps presently recommenced, descending stealthily, but drawing no nearer, and seeming rather like sounds from an adjoining house, heard through a party-wall. This was impossible, as the house stood alone. Flushed with excitement, she relighted the hall candles, and, taking one of them, searched the whole entry and stairway, going down even to the large, old-fashioned cellar.

Looking about her in this unfamiliar region, her eye fell on a door that seemed to open into the wall; she had noticed a similar door on the story above,--one of the closet doors that had been nailed up by Aunt Jane's order. As she looked, however, a chill breath blew in from another direction, extinguishing her lamp. This air came from the outer door of the cellar, and she had just time to withdraw into a corner before a man's steps approached, passing close by her.

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Even Hope's strong nerves had begun to yield, and a cold shudder went through her. Not daring to move, she pressed herself against the wall, and her heart seemed to stop as the unseen stranger passed. Instead of his ascending where she had come down, as she had expected, she heard him grope his way toward the door she had seen in the wall.

There he seemed to find a stairway, and when his steps were thus turned from her, she was seized by a sudden impulse and followed him, groping her way as she could. She remembered that the girls had talked of secret stairways in that house, though she had no conception whither they could lead, unless to some of the shut-up closets.

She steadily followed, treading cautiously upon each creaking step. The stairway was very narrow, and formed a regular spiral as in a turret. The darkness and the curving motion confused her brain, and it was impossible to tell how high in the house she was, except when once she put her hand upon what was evidently a door, and moreover saw through its cracks the lamp she had left burning in the upper hall. This glimpse of reality reassured her. She had begun to discover where she was. The doors which Aunt Jane had closed gave access, not to mere closets, but to a spiral stairway, which evidently went from top to bottom of the house, and was known to some one else beside herself.

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Malbone: An Oldport Romance
Thomas Wentworth Higginson

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