The boy suddenly blazed up a little.
“You seem to think I’ve got no heart,” he cried. “Suppose it was true—suppose really and truly Amy was here, and—”
A sudden clear sharp sound like the crack of a whip sounded from the corner of the room. Even Maggie started and glanced at the boy. He was dead white on the instant; his lips were trembling.
“What was that?” he whispered sharp and loud.
“Just the woodwork,” she said tranquilly; “the thaw has set in tonight.”
Laurie looked at her; his lips still moved nervously.
“But—but—” he began.
“Dear boy, don’t you see the state of nerves—”
Again came the little sharp crack, and she stopped. For an instant she was disturbed; certain possibilities opened before her, and she regarded them. Then she crushed them down, impatiently and half timorously. She stood up abruptly.
“I’m going to bed,” she said. “This is too ridiculous—”
“No, no; don’t leave me ... Maggie ... I don’t like it.”
She sat down again, wondering at his childishness, and yet conscious that her own nerves, too, were ever so slightly on edge. She would not look at him, for fear that the meeting of eyes might hint at more than she meant. She threw her head back on her chair and remained looking at the ceiling. But to think that the souls of the dead—ah, how repulsive!
Outside the night was very still.
The hard frost had kept the world iron-bound in a sprinkle of snow during the last two or three days, but this afternoon the thaw had begun. Twice during dinner there had come the thud of masses of snow falling from the roof on to the lawn outside, and the clear sparkle of the candles had seemed a little dim and hazy. “It would be a comfort to get at the garden again,” she had reflected.
And now that the two sat here in the windless silence the thaw became more apparent every instant. The silence was profound, and the little noises of the night outside, the drip from the eaves slow and deliberate, the rustle of released leaves, and even the gentle thud on the lawn from the yew branches—all these helped to emphasize the stillness. It was not like the murmur of day; it was rather like the gnawing of a mouse in the wainscot of some death chamber.
It requires almost superhumanly strong nerves to sit at night, after a conversation of this kind, opposite an apparently reasonable person who is white and twitching with terror, even though one resolutely refrains from looking at him, without being slightly affected. One may argue with oneself to any extent, tap one’s foot cheerfully on the floor, fill the mind most painstakingly with normal thoughts; yet it is something of a conflict, however victorious one may be.
Even Maggie herself became aware of this.
It was not that now for one single moment she allowed that the two little sudden noises in the room could possibly proceed from any cause whatever except that which she had stated—the relaxation of stiffened wood under the influence of the thaw. Nor had all Laurie’s arguments prevailed to shake in the smallest degree her resolute conviction that there was nothing whatever preternatural in his certainly queer story.