Edgar Watson Howe.

The Mystery of the Locks online

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_Copyright, 1885_,

_All Rights Reserved._





























Davy's Bend - a river town, a failing town, and an old town, on a dark
night, with a misty rain falling, and the stars hiding from the
dangerous streets and walks of the failing town down by the sluggish
river which seems to be hurrying away from it, too, like its
institutions and its people, and as the light of the wretched day that
has just closed hurried away from it a few hours since.

The darkness is so intense that the people who look out of their windows
are oppressed from staring at nothing, for the shadows are obliterated,
and for all they know there may be great caverns in the streets, filled
with water from the rising river, and vagabond debris on their front
steps. It occurs to one of them who opens the blind to his window a
moment, and looks out (and who notices incidentally that the rays from
his lamp seem afraid to venture far from the casement) that a hard crust
will form somewhere above the town, up where there is light for the
living, and turn the people of Davy's Bend into rocks as solid as those
thousands of feet below, which thought affects him so much that he
closes his blinds and shutters tighter than before, determined that his
rooms shall become caves.

The rain comes down steadily, plashing into little pools in the road
with untiring energy, where it joins other vagrant water, and creeps off
at last into the gutter, into the rivulet, and into the river, where it
joins the restless tide which is always hurrying away from Davy's Bend,
and bubbles and foams with joy.

The citizen who observed the intense blackness of the night comes to his
window again, and notes the steady falling of the rain, and in his
reverie pretends to regret that it is not possible for the water to come
up until his house will float away like an ark, that he may get rid of
living in a place where the nights are so dark and wet that he cannot
sleep for thinking of them. When he returns to his chair, and attempts
to read, the pattering rain is so persistent on the roof and at the
windows that the possibility of a flood occurs to his mind, and he
thinks with satisfaction that, should it come to pass, Davy's Bend would
at last be as well off as Ben's City; and this possibility is so
pleasant that he puts out his light, the only one showing in the town,
and goes to bed.

At the foot of a long street, so close to the river that its single
light casts a ghastly glare into the water, stands the railroad station,
where the agent awaits the arrival of the single train that visits the
place daily, - for only a few people want to go to Davy's Bend, and not
many are left to move away, - so the agent mutters at the rain and the
darkness, and growls at the hard fate that keeps him up so late; for, of
all the inhabitants of the place, he is the only one who has business to
call him out at night. There are no people in Davy's Bend who are
overworked, or whose business cares are so great as to make them nervous
or fretful; so they sleep and yawn a great deal, and have plenty of time
in which to tell how dull their own place is, and how distressingly
active is Ben's City, located in the country below them, and which is
admired even by the river, for it is always going in that direction.

Fortunately, on this misty night the agent has not long to wait; for
just as he curls himself up in his chair to rest comfortably, certain
that the train will be late, there is a hoarse blast from a steam
whistle up the road, which echoes through the woods and over the hills
with a dismal roar, and by the time he has seized his lantern, and
reached the outside, the engine bell is ringing softly in the yard; the
headlight appears like a great eye spying out the dark places around the
building, and before he has had time to look about him, or express his
surprise that the wheels are on time, a few packages have been unloaded,
and the train creeps out into the darkness, hurrying away from Davy's
Bend, like the river and the people.

There is but one passenger to-night: a man above the medium height and
weight, dressed like a city tradesman, who seems to own the packages put
off, for he is standing among them, and apparently wondering what
disposition he is to make of them; for the agent is about to retire into
the station with his books under his arm. Evidently the stranger is not
good natured, for he hails the official impatiently, and inquires, in a
voice that is a mixture of indignation and impudence, if the hotels have
no representatives about, and if he is expected to remain out in the
rain all night to guard his property.

The agent does not know as to that, but he does know that the stranger
is welcome to leave his packages in the building until morning, which
arrangement seems to be the best offering, for it is accepted, after
both men have denounced the town until they are satisfied; for no one
pretends to defend Davy's Bend, so the agent readily assents to whatever
the stranger desires to say that is discreditable to his native place,
while he is helping him to carry the trunks and bundles into the light.

When the rays of the single lamp in the station fall upon the stranger,
the agent at first concludes that he is middle-aged, for a new growth of
whiskers covers his face completely; but he thinks better of this during
the course of his inspection, and remarks to himself that the owner of
the packages is not as old as he seemed at first glance, but he is a man
not satisfied with himself, or with anything around him, - the agent is
sure of that; and as he helps with the baggage, of which there is a
great deal, he keeps thinking to himself that it will stand him in hand
to be more polite than usual, for the stranger looks sullen enough to
fight with very little provocation. His quick, restless eyes were always
busy, - the agent feels certain that he has been measured and disposed of
in a glance, - but the longer he looks at the stranger the more certain
he becomes that the packages he is helping to handle contains goods of
importance, for their owner is evidently a man of importance.

"There must be gold in that," the agent says, as he puts his end of one
of the trunks down, and pauses to rest. "I have been agent here a good
many years; but if that is not an excess, I never had hold of one. Now
for the rest of them."

The work is soon finished, and after extinguishing the light the agent
steps upon the outside, locks the door, and puts the key into his

"I am sorry," he says, as he stands with the stranger outside the door,
on a covered platform, where they are protected from the rain, "but I go
in this direction, while the hotel lies in that," pointing the way.
"It's a rough road, and you may have trouble in getting them up, but I
guess you will get there if you go far enough, for the hotel stands
directly at the head of the street. It's a pity that the town does not
afford an omnibus, or a public carriage, but it doesn't, and that ends
it. I intend to go away myself as soon as I can, for the company does
not treat me any too well, though it is generally said that another man
could not be found to do the work as I do it for the money."

By this time the agent has his umbrella up, which appears to be as
dilapidated as the town, for it comes up with difficulty, so he says
good night cheerily, and disappears; and the traveller, after shivering
awhile on the platform, starts out to follow the direction given him,
floundering in the mud at every step.

There is a row of houses on either side, with great gaps between them,
and he is barely able to make out the strip of lighter shade which he
judges is the street he is to follow, the night is so dark; but as the
hotel is said to lie directly across his path, he argues that he is sure
to run into it sooner or later, so he blunders on, shivering when he
realizes that he is becoming wet to the skin. After travelling in this
manner much longer than was desirable, finding the sidewalks so bad that
he takes to the middle of the street, and finally goes back to the walk
again in desperation; stumbling over barrels and carts, and so much
rubbish that is oozy and soft as to cause him to imagine that everything
is turning into a liquid state in order that it may leave the place by
way of the gutters, the rivulets, and the river, he becomes aware that a
lantern, carried by one of two men, whose legs are to be seen in long
shadows, is approaching, and that they are very merry, for they are
making a good deal of noise, and stop frequently to accuse each other of
being jolly old boys, or thorough scoundrels, or dreadful villains, or
to lean up against the buildings to discuss ribald questions which seem
to amuse them. Apparently they have no destination, for after one of
their bursts of merriment they are as apt to walk up the street as down
it; and believing them to be the town riff-raff out for a lark, the
stranger tries to pass them without attracting attention when he comes
up to their vicinity; but the one who carries the lantern sees him, and,
locking arms with his companion, adroitly heads the traveller off, and
puts the lantern so close to his face that he dodges back to avoid it.

"Tug," the man says, in an amused way, "a stranger. There will be a
sensation in Davy's Bend to-morrow; it hasn't happened before in a

Believing the men to be good-natured prowlers who can give him the
information he is seeking, the stranger patiently waits while they enjoy
their joke; which they do in a very odd fashion, for the man who carries
the lantern, and who, the stranger noticed when the lantern was raised,
was rather small, and old, and thin-faced, leans against his companion,
and laughs in an immoderate but meek fashion. The fellow who had been
addressed as Tug had said nothing at all, though he snorted once, in a
queer way, which threw his companion into greater convulsions of
merriment than ever, and changing their position so that they support
themselves against a building, one of them continues to laugh gayly, and
the other to chuckle and snort, until they are quite exhausted, as
though a stranger in Davy's Bend is very funny indeed.

"There will be a train going the other way in three hours, - for both the
trains creep through the town at night, as if they were ashamed to be
seen here in daylight," the little man says to the traveller, recovering
himself, and with a show of seriousness. "You had better take it, and go
back; really you had. Davy's Bend will never suit you. It don't suit
anybody. The last man that came here stood it a week, when off he went,
and we never expected to see another one. Look at these deserted houses
in every direction," he continues, stepping out farther into the middle
of the street, as if to point around him, but remembering that the night
is so dark that nothing can be seen, he goes back to his companion, and
pokes him in the ribs, which causes that worthy to snort once more in
the odd way that the stranger noticed on coming up. This reminds them of
their joke again; so they return to the building, leaning against it
with their arms, their heads, and their backs, laughing as they did
before. Meanwhile the stranger stands out in the rain, watching the two
odd men with an air of interest; but at last, recollecting his
condition, he says, -

"It happens that I am looking for a place that suits nobody, and one
that is generally avoided. If you will point out the way to the hotel, I
will decide that question for myself to-morrow."

The little man picks up the lantern immediately when the hotel is

"I never thought of the hotel," he exclaims, on the alert at once, and
starting up the street, followed by his snorting companion, who ambled
along like the front part of a wagon pushed from behind. "It is my
business to be at the station when the train arrives, to look for
passengers," the man continues as he hurries on with the light; "but it
seemed like a waste of time to go down there, for nobody ever comes; so
I thought I'd spend the time with Tug."

The man says this in a tone of apology, as though accustomed to making
explanations for lack of attention to business; and as he leads the way
he is not at all like the jolly fellow who laughed so immoderately,
while leaning against the building, at his own weak joke; but perhaps he
is one thing when on duty, and another when he is out airing himself.
However this may be, the stranger follows, taking long strides to keep
up, and occasionally stumbling over the person who has been referred to
as Tug, and who appears to be unjointed in his legs; for when room is
made for him on the left-hand side of the walk, he is sure suddenly to
turn up on the right.

Thus they hurry along without speaking, until at length a dim light
appears directly ahead of them, and coming up to this presently, the
stranger finds that it comes from a building lying across the course in
which they are travelling; for the street leading up from the river and
the station ends abruptly in that direction with the hotel, as it ended
in the other with the station. Another street crosses here at right
angles, and the hotel turns travellers either to the right or to the

When the three men enter the place, and the light is turned up, the
traveller sees that it had formerly been a business place; that it has
been patched and pieced, and does not seem to answer the purpose for
which it is being used without a protest, for the guests fall down two
steps when they attempt to enter the dining-room, and everyone is
compelled to go outside the office to get to the stairway leading to the
rooms above. In its better days the room used as an office had probably
been a provision store; for the whitewash on the walls does not entirely
cover price-lists referring to chickens and hams and oats and flour.

"I am the clerk here," the man who had carried the lantern says, as he
brings out a chair for the stranger, but condemns it after examination
because both the back legs are gone, and it can only be used when
leaning against the wall. "I am sorry I was not at the station to meet
you; but it is so seldom that anyone comes that I hope you will not
mention it to him," pointing his thumb upward, evidently referring to
the proprietor sleeping above.

The arrival was thinking that queer little men like the one before him
were to be found at every country hotel he had ever visited, acting as
clerk during the hours when there was no business, and as hostler and
waiter during the day, but he rather liked the appearance of this
fellow, for he seemed more intelligent than the most of them, so he
turned to listen to what he was saying, at the same time recollecting
that he himself had suddenly become very grave.

"This is not much of a hotel," the clerk continues, at last fishing out
a chair that seems to be strong, and placing it in front of the guest;
"but it is the best Davy affords. The hotel, though, is better than the
town; you will find that out soon enough."

A small man, of uncertain age, the clerk turns out to be, now that the
light is upon him. He may be thirty, or forty, or fifty; for, judged in
some ways, he looks old, while judged in other ways he looks young; but
it is certain that he is not jolly around the hotel as he was on the
street, for he is very meek, and occasionally strokes his pale face,
which is beardless, with the exception of a meek little tuft on either
side, as though he thinks that since he has been caught laughing it will
go hard with him.

After looking at his companion, with an amused smile, for a moment, the
stranger says that he will not mention anything, good or bad, "to him,"
whoever he may be, and, while thinking to himself that "Davy" is a
familiar way of referring to Davy's Bend, he notices that the man who
has already been called Tug, and who has found a chair and is sitting
bolt upright in it, is eyeing him closely. He also remarks that Tug is
hideously ugly, and that he is dressed in a suit of seedy black, which
has once been respectable, but is now so sleek, from long use, that it
glistens in the lamplight. He has a shock of hair, and a shock of beard,
both of which seem to have been trimmed recently by a very awkward
person; and the stranger also notices, in the course of his idle
examination, that one of Tug's eyes, the left one, is very wide open,
while the other is so nearly shut that generally the man seems to be
aiming at something. When Tug winks with the eye that is wide open, the
one that is nearly shut remains perfectly motionless, but follows the
example presently, and winks independently and of its own accord, so
that the stranger thinks of him as walking with his eyes, taking a
tremendous leap with his left, and then a limp with his right.

Tug continues his observations, in spite of the cold stare of the
stranger, and makes several discoveries, one of which is, that the
stranger has a rather good-looking face and a large and restless eye.
Tug imagines that he can read the man's character in his eye as easily
as in an open book, for it has varying moods, and seems to be resolute
at one moment, and gloomy and discontented at another. Although he is
looking straight at him, Tug is certain that the stranger's thoughts are
not always in Davy's Bend; and, while thinking that the stranger has
important matters to think of somewhere, the clerk returns from the
kitchen, carrying in his arms a great piece of cold beef, a loaf of
bread, a half a pie in a tin plate, and a coffee-pot and a tumbler.
Covering with a newspaper a round table that stands in the room, he
places the articles upon it, and asks the guest to sit up and help

The stranger declined, but he noticed that Tug, from his position
against the wall, was walking toward the table with his eyes, with first
a long step and then a short one, and that at a sign from his friend he
walked over hurriedly with his legs, and went to work with a ravenous
appetite, putting pieces of meat and bread into his mouth large enough
to strangle him. This convinced the stranger that the lunch was really
prepared for Tug, and that there would have been disappointment had he
accepted the clerk's invitation.

"I don't suppose you care to know it," the clerk said, seating himself,
and apparently enjoying the manner in which Tug was disposing of the
cold meat, "but my name is Silas Davy. I am what is known as a good
fellow, and my father was a good fellow before me. He discovered this
town, or located it, or settled here first, or something of that kind,
and once had a great deal of property; but, being a good fellow, he
couldn't keep it. If you will give me your name, I will introduce you to
my friend, Mr. Tug Whittle."

"I don't care to know him," the guest replied, somewhat ill-humoredly,
his restless eyes indicating that his thoughts had just returned from a
journey out in the world somewhere, as they finally settled on Tug. "I
don't like his looks."

Tug looked up at this remark, sighted awhile at the guest with his right
eye, and, after swallowing his last mouthful, with an effort, pointed a
finger at him, to intimate that he was about to speak.

"Did you see any ragged or sore-eyed people get off the train to-night?"
he inquired, in a deep bass voice, still pointing with his bony finger,
and aiming along it with his little eye.

The guest acted as though he had a mind not to reply, but at last said
he was the only passenger for Davy's Bend.

"I was expecting more of my wife's kin," Tug said, with an angry snort,
taking down his finger to turn over the meat-bone, and using his eye to
look for a place not yet attacked. "Come to think about it, though, they
are not likely to arrive by rail; they will probably reach town on foot,
in the morning. They are too poor to ride. I wish they were too sick to
walk, damn them. Do you happen to know what the word ornery means?"

The guest acted as though he had a mind not to reply again, but finally
shook his head, after some hesitation.

"Well," the ugly fellow said, "if you stay here, - which I don't believe
you will, for you look too much like a good one to remain here
long, - I'll introduce you not only to the word but to the kin. After you
have seen my wife's relations, you'll fight when anybody calls you

Finding a likely spot on the meat-bone at the conclusion of this speech,
Mr. Whittle went on with his eating, and was silent.

"There are a great many people who do not like Tug's looks," the clerk
went on to say, without noticing the interruption, and looking
admiringly at that individual, as though he could not understand why he
was not more generally admired; "so it is not surprising that you are
suspicious of him. I do not say it with reference to you, for you do not
know him; but my opinion is that the people dislike him because of his
mind. He knows too much to suit them, and they hate him."

By this time Tug had wiped up everything before him, and after
transferring the grease and pie crumbs from his lips and beard to his
sleeve, the three men were silent, listening to the rain on the outside,
and taking turns in looking out of the windows into the darkness.

"I suppose the shutters are rattling dismally up at The Locks to-night,"
Silas Davy said. "And the windows! Lord, how the windows must rattle!
I've been told that when there isn't a breath of air the shutters and
windows at The Locks go on at a great rate, and they must be at it
to-night, for I have never known it to be so oppressive and still

"And the light," Tug suggested, removing his aim from the stranger a
moment, and directing it toward Davy.

"Yes, the light, of course," Davy assented. "They say - I don't know who
says it in particular, but everybody says it in general - that on a night
like this a light appears in the lower rooms, where it disappears and is
seen in the front hall; then in the upper hall, and then in an upper
room, where it goes out finally, as if someone had been sitting
down-stairs, in the dark, and had struck a light to show him up to bed.
There is no key to the room where the light disappears, and those who
visit the house are not permitted to enter it. I have never seen the
light myself, but I have been to the house on windy, noisy days, and it
was as silent on the inside as a tomb. The windows and shutters being
noisy on quiet nights, I suppose they feel the need of a rest when the
wind is blowing."

The guest was paying a good deal of attention, and Davy went on talking.

"The place has not been occupied in a great many years. The man who
built it, and occupied it, and who owns it now, made money in Davy's
Bend, and went away to the city to live, where he has grown so rich that
he has never sent for the plunder locked up in the rooms; I suppose it
is not good enough for him now, for I am told that he is very proud. He
has been trying to sell the place ever since, but Davy began going down
hill about that time, and the people have been kicking it so sturdily
ever since that nobody will take it. And I don't blame them, for it is
nothing more than a nest for ghosts, even if it is big, and
respectable-looking, and well furnished."

The guest's mind is evidently in Davy's Bend now, for he has been paying
close attention to the clerk as he talks in a modest easy fashion, even

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Online LibraryEdgar Watson HoweThe Mystery of the Locks → online text (page 1 of 21)