There was only one school in Brownville and I was the only teacher. Brownville was a small town and had few young people, but many visitors stayed there in the summer.
Brownville has some of the finest views in the state of California. The town lies between hills that are covered in beautiful, colorful trees. In the hills, the air is fresh and clear. Many visitors came to Brownville to improve their health. They walked on the hills and breathed the good, clean air.
I saw many of these visitors because I lived in a boarding house. In summer, the house was full of guests and I talked to most of them. I ate breakfast and supper in the boarding house and spent the rest of the day at the school.
The school was not far away. It was on the other side of a hill. The distance by road was about one and a half miles, but I knew a shorter way. I could walk over the top of the hill in fifteen minutes. There was a path that ran through the forest on the hill.
I came back along this forest path late one evening. It was the last day of term. Tomorrow, the students' vacations would begin. I had stayed late at the school because I had been writing reports about the students.
The sun was going down in the sky. Its golden light shone through the trees and made long dark shadows. I was tired. I sat down on an old, fallen tree and looked at the sun setting in the darkening sky. It was calm and peaceful in the forest. Suddenly I heard voices. One was a woman's voice, and she sounded angry. The second voice belonged to a man. It was a deep and musical voice-the voice of a singer. I could not see who was speaking, but I could hear the words clearly.
«Don't threaten me!» the man said. «You can do nothing. Don't try to change anything, or you'll both suffer.»
«What do you mean?» said the woman's voice angrily. It was a cultivated voice-she spoke clearly and well. «Do you mean that you'll murder us?»
The man did not reply. I wanted to get to the boarding house. It was supper time, and I was hungry. But I did not want to pass the man and woman. I looked around and saw no one. I stood up quickly and walked on.
It was almost dark now, but suddenly I saw the two people among the trees. They were standing on the path. The man was tall and slim. He seemed to be wearing black clothes. But there were too many shadows and I could not see clearly. The woman wore a pale gray dress. They did not see me.
As I watched, the woman knelt on the ground in front of the man. She held her hands together in front of her face. Was she begging for the man's help? Or was she praying that he would not hurt her? I did not like this scene. There was trouble here. I stepped behind a large tree.
When I looked at the path again, the man and woman had disappeared. I walked on until I saw the light of the lamps shining from the windows of the boarding house. The scene of the man and the woman in the forest stayed in my mind. It had made me feel unhappy and uncomfortable.
I saw some new guests at breakfast the next morning. A young woman sat at a table opposite mine, but she was not the woman who I had seen last night.
Then a younger lady entered the dining-room. The two young women looked very similar. And they were both extremely pretty.
When the second young lady spoke, I recognized her voice immediately. I had heard it in the forest. The two ladies were sisters. I guessed that they were about eighteen and twenty years old.
I finished my coffee and left the dining-room quickly. We were the only people in the room and I did not want to listen to their private conversation. That would be rude. And I did not want them to notice me.
I did not see the tall, slim man, hut I heard him. He was in the garden of the boarding house. As I had guessed, he was a singer. He was practicing his singing. He was singing «La donna e mobile»-a song from Verdi's opera, Rigoletto.
The singer had a very good, strong voice. Maybe it was too good. Why was he in a simple boarding house in Brownville and singing in this way? This was strange. Did he want the guests to admire his voice? I walked away quickly.
When I returned to the boarding house later, I saw the elder sister. She was standing in the garden with the singer. He was dressed in black clothes. His back was turned toward me, so I could not see his face.
Brownville was a small town and it had no theaters or restaurants. So when the people of Brownville finished their work, they enjoyed gossiping. I enjoyed gossiping too. Who were these unusual visitors, and what was their story?
The singer was talking easily to the younger woman. I guessed that they knew each other well. When I came into the garden, he stopped talking and turned around. He looked straight at my face.
The man was not young. I guessed that he was about fifty years old. His face was extremely handsome. His hair was thick and black-as black as the clothes that he wore. And the clothes were very fine. They were smart, fashionable and well-made. They looked expensive. He could not have bought clothes like these in Brownville. I had seen pictures of opera houses in the fashionable cities of Europe. This man reminded me of the men in those pictures.
The man looked at me as if he knew the thoughts in my head. Did he know what I was thinking? The expression on his face was not angry or frightening. But I suddenly felt afraid. Why? I could not explain it. I only knew that I was afraid of this dark and handsome man. He was dangerous. I did not like him.
He put his hand on the young woman's arm and turned her away. Then they stepped inside the boarding house and disappeared. Neither of them spoke to me.
The landlady of the boarding house always liked to gossip. She always had the latest news and was happy to talk about it. So I asked her about the new guests.
«The two girls are Pauline and Eva Maynard and they've come from San Francisco,» the landlady said. «Pauline is the older sister. The man's name is Richard Benning. He is their guardian. He has taken care of the girls since their father died. Soon, when the girls are twenty one, they'll have their father's money. Meanwhile, Eva isn't well. Mr Benning believes that the good air of Brownville will improve her health.»
«Mr Benning takes very good care of the two girls,» the landlady went on. «He spends a lot of money on them, and on himself. But maybe he's spending their father's money.»
It was now my summer vacation. I did not have to go back to the school for several weeks. I walked on the hills and enjoyed the views and the fresh air. I often met Richard Benning and the two girls walking on the hills too. They seemed to be very happy together. Then I remembered the strange words that I had heard one of the sisters say. «Do you mean that you'll murder us?» Why had Eva Maynard said this?
For a short time, I forgot those frightening words. Then one morning, the people of Brownville were all talking about a tragedy. Something terrible had happened in their town. Pauline Maynard, the elder sister, had died. Many people came to the boarding house to say a few kind words.
I went into the sitting-room. Eva Maynard was standing beside the body of her dead sister and she was weeping. Pauline Maynard was lying in a wooden coffin. I Her face was extremely pale. She looked as if she were asleep. A crowd of people stood in the doorway of the sitting-room and stared at the scene.
Suddenly, Richard Benning pushed his way through the crowd and entered the room. He tried to hold Eva's hand, but she pulled it away. She stood up and cried out.
«It's you!» she shouted. «You've done this. You-you-YOU!»
«She doesn't know what she's saying,» Richard Benning said in a soft voice. «She's had a terrible shock. She's upset.»
Benning moved toward Eva, hut she stepped away from him. He did not try to touch her hand again. Instead, he moved his hand in front of her face-slowly-once. Immediately Eva's eyes closed and she stood still. Then Benning held her hand and put his other arm around her shoulders. Suddenly she began to weep again. Then Benning gently led the young woman out of the room.
A few days later, there was an inquest in Brownville. The coroner listened to the words of Benning, a doctor, and several people in the boarding house. Then he wrote these words on Pauline's death certificate: Cause of death-heart disease. They thought that Pauline had died suddenly because her heart was weak.
Benning sent for an undertaker from San Francisco. The undertaker took Pauline's body back to the city and she was buried. Neither Benning nor Eva went to the dead girl's funeral. Many of the people of Brownville thought that this was wrong and strange.
«Poor Eva,» the landlady said to me. «Her health is not good. Mr Benning is worried. He doesn't want to take her back to San Francisco. Her health might become worse if she goes to the city. It's better for her to stay here, in Brownville.»
A week passed. One evening, I finished my supper and went into the garden. I saw Richard Benning and Eva Maynard standing beneath a tree. They were holding each other's hands and looking into each other's eyes. It was a very gentle and romantic scene, but it was wrong. They looked like lovers. Benning was a fifty-year-old man and Eva was not yet twenty. Also, he was her guardian. Benning should be like a father to the young woman-not a lover.
I stood in the shadows and they did not sec me. I did not move, but I listened.
«You will kill me,» said Eva, «I know that you killed Pauline. I beg you to kill me quickly. Let me go. Let me be at peace.»
Richard Benning did not reply. He released Eva's hand and walked away. He walked up the hill to the forest where I had first seen him. As he walked, he sang. His fine voice sounded beautiful and wild. Eva stared at her guardian. As she listened, she put her hands together. She held her hands in front of her body as if she was praying.
I walked out of the shadows. Eva turned and stared at me. Maybe I had frightened her.
«Miss Maynard,» I said, «I'm sorry. I came into the garden and I heard what you said. I believe that you're in danger.»
«You can do nothing,» she said. Her voice was soft and she had a strange expression on her face. Her eyes were large and bright. Was she ill? Or maybe she was dreaming?
I gently held Eva's hand. «You seem to be asleep,» I said. «You must wake up. You said that Benning killed your sister. You said that he'll kill you too. Will you tell me about it? I'll try to help you.»
«You can't help me,» said Eva. «We'll be here for only a day or two more. Then we'll go away-far away. I ask you to be silent. You mustn't talk about anything that you've seen or heard here.»
«But this is crazy,» I said. «I'm sure that you're in danger. I must tell the police.»
Eva woke up a little when she heard this. Her expression changed. She became cold and polite.
«This is my business, not yours,» she said.
«But your sister died here-in Brownville,» I said. «And she died suddenly. Now you are in danger. The people of Brownville might be in danger too. You must tell me what happened. Didn't you love your sister?»
«Yes, I loved her,» said Eva. «But I love him more. Do you think that the police will believe you? You heard a secret conversation. If you talk about it, I'll say that your words are lies. No one will believe your story.»
Suddenly she smiled. It was a beautiful, sweet smile. I could not believe her words. They were so hard and cold.
Eva held my hand tightly. «Come with me,» she said. «We'll walk together. He will be away all night. He won't know that you've been with me. We'll walk and talk. And you'll forget what you've seen and heard. You'll forget about us.»
Truly, I did not know the ways of women then. I was happy to walk in the garden with Eva Maynard. I was a little in love with this beautiful young woman. We talked about the people of Brownville. And we talked about their love of gossip. I did not want to go to my bed.
Before I said goodnight, I asked Eva to walk with me the next day.
«There's an old mill on the top of the hill. Will you walk there with me tomorrow afternoon? We can enjoy the fine views from the mill.»
«If he's not here, yes. I'll walk there with you,» said Eva.
I went to bed feeling happy. I smiled happily as I fell asleep. The next morning, I awoke feeling even happier.
«Today is going to be a special day,» I thought.
Eva was not in the dining-room at lunchtime. Maybe I had hoped for too much. I am only a school teacher in a small town. And I am not very rich, or very handsome. But I was not disappointed. Eva came into the garden. Benning must have gone away! I was the happiest man in the world!
Eva said nothing as I followed her up the path to the old mill. She knew the way there because she had walked to the mill many times with her guardian.
Eva and I did not have a conversation, but she sang songs. She sang happy and sad songs. Her feelings changed as quickly as clouds pass across the sky. One minute-sunshine. The next minute-shadow. I was happy to be with her, whatever she felt. She walked and I followed.
When we came to the mill, she did not stop walking. She crossed an old wooden bridge and took the path up the high hill. It was the path to a place called the Eagle's Nest. This was where the path ended, on a cliff high above the forest. The view from Eagle's Nest was beautiful.
I was a little afraid. The view was fine, but I did not like to go near the edge of the cliff. The ground was more than two hundred feet below us. But Eva stood on the cliff's edge and looked up, not down.
Suddenly I heard footsteps, and Richard Benning came and stood beside us.
«I saw you walking on the path,» he said carelessly, «so I came up too.»
Eva turned toward us. She still stood on the edge of the cliff. Her eyes were shining and she was smiling. There was a look of love on her face.
«I'm so glad that you came,» she said.
She was staring at Benning. Her loving expression showed that she was telling the truth. But then I saw something else in her expression.
Eva's mouth was smiling, but suddenly there was fear in her eyes. She looked like a frightened animal. With a smile on her lips and fear in her eyes, Eva stepped backward. She fell over the edge of the cliff to the ground below.
Benning and I ran down the path to the bottom of the cliff. He got there before me.
I did not want to look at Eva's body. Beautiful Eva was no longer beautiful. Benning looked at her carefully but he did not touch her.
«She's dead, quite dead,» he said. «I'll go to the town and get a police officer. Please stay here with the body.»
I did not know what to say. I was shocked.
Benning started to walk toward Brownville. Then he turned and looked at me.
You saw what happened," he said carelessly. «It was an accident. Eva killed herself. I saw her step off the edge of the cliff and you saw it too.»
«You're a killer!» I said. «You're a damned killer! You didn't touch her, but I know that you killed her.»
Benning turned his back toward me and walked away. As he walked through the forest, I heard him singing. He was singing a song from Verdi's opera, Rigoletto.
«La donna e mobile...»
— THE END -