Suddenly, there was a loud snapping noise, as of breaking branches in the wood beside him. It was so startling that his hands paused on the oars, as he looked quickly round to see what could have produced it. And at the same moment the searchlight on the boathouse reached the spot to which his eyes were drawn, and he saw for an instant—sharply distinct and ghostly white—a woman’s face and hands—amid the blackness of the wood. He had only a moment in which to see them, in which to catch a glimpse of a figure among the trees, before the light was gone, leaving a double gloom behind it.
Mysterious! Who could it be? Was it some one who wanted to be put across the pond? He shouted. “Who is that?”
Then he rowed in to the shore, straining his eyes to see. It occurred to him that it might be a lady’s maid brought by a guest, who had been out for a walk, and missed her way home in a strange park. “Do you want to get to the house? I can put you across to it if you wish,” he said in a loud voice, addressing the unknown—“otherwise you’ll have to go a long way round.”
No answer—only an intensity of silence, through which he heard from a great distance a church clock striking. The wood and all its detail had vanished in profound shadow.
Conscious of a curious excitement he rowed still further in to the bank, and again spoke to the invisible woman. In vain. He began then to doubt his own eyes. Had it been a mere illusion produced by some caprice of the searchlight opposite? But the face!—the features of it were stamped on his memory, the gaunt bitterness of them, the brooding misery.
How could he have imagined such a thing?
Much perplexed and rather shaken in nerve, he rowed back across the pond—to hear the band tuning in the flower-filled drawing-room, as he approached the house.