Idle precaution! The widow Tresize’s dogs were peradventure caught napping. At all events, neither one nor the other uttered a sound. Doctor Unonius, wrenching a lamp from its socket, walked boldly forward at Dapple’s bit and, coming to the back entrance by the midden-yard, knocked boldly.
To his surprise, within a few seconds a faint light shone through the chink by the door-jamb, and he heard a footstep coming down the passage. A bolt was withdrawn, very softly—the door opened—and Mrs Tresize herself confronted him.
She stood just within the threshold, holding a lamp high: and its rays, while they fell full on the doctor, causing him to blink, crossed the rays of his gig-lamp which showed him that, late though the hour was, she had as yet made no preparations for going to bed, even to the extent of taking off her jewellery. The base of the lamp, as its flames flickered in the draught, cast a waving shadow over the widow’s cap perched on her neatly coiled black tresses, and the same shadow danced across her jet-black eyes and left them staring at him, very bright and inquisitive. She wore a dress of stiff black silk with a somewhat coquettish apron; and about her neck a solid gold chain, thrice coiled, with a massive locket pendant at her bosom. Above the locket was fastened a large memorial brooch with a framework of gold, a face of crystal and, behind the crystal, a weeping willow designed in somebody’s hair. Altogether the widow’s attire and array suggested that she had recently dismissed, or was even now expecting, company.
‘You may well be surprised, madam—at this hour—’
‘I did not send for you.’
’No, madam; and you will be surprised when you learn the reason of this call—surprised but not (I beg) alarmed. To begin with, I have a pistol here and can, at the worst, protect you.’
’I had best tell you my story, which is a sufficiently extraordinary one. I have been dining at Penalune—nay, madam, do not misunderstand me: I am as sober as a judge. On my homeward road I overtook a suspicious character, and certain evidence I managed to wrest from him leaves little doubt that robbery is intended here to-night, as it has actually been achieved elsewhere. The man, I should tell you—a powerful fellow—was dressed in woman’s apparel.’
‘Oh!’ said Mrs Tresize shortly, and called down the passage behind her—’Tryphena, come here!’
Without delay a middle-aged maid-servant appeared from a doorway that (as the doctor knew) led out of an inner kitchen. Two sheep dogs followed her growling, but at her command grew tractable and made no demonstration beyond running around the doctor and sniffing at his legs.
Tryphena, too—who, like her mistress, was fully dressed—betrayed no surprise. She had, in fact, been sent upstairs at the sound of wheels, and from behind a curtain had recognised Doctor Unonius as he examined the paper by the light of his gig-lamp.