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Down a Dark Hall

Lois Duncan

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  Table of Contents

  Copyright Page

  Q&A with the Author

  For Dan and Betty Sabo

  They had been driving since dawn, but for the past two hours—since they had turned off the highway onto the winding road that led through the hill country—Kit Gordy had been sleeping. Perhaps not completely sleeping—a part of her mind had remained awake, conscious of the curves of the road, of the faint warmth of the September sunlight slanting through the window to warm her hair, and of the two voices in the front seat: her mother’s light and lilting, Dan’s low-pitched and even.

  But Kit rode with her eyes closed and her head settled against the back of the seat. In this way she could keep from joining the conversation. I will not talk to them, she told herself. I have nothing to say to them.

  When the car drew to a stop, she could not keep herself from opening her eyes. When she did, she found her mother turned sideways, looking back at her.

  “Hi, sleepyhead,” Mrs. Rolland said. “You’ve been missing a lot of pretty countryside—pastures and brooks and rolling hills. It’s been like something out of a picture book.”

  “Has it?” Kit asked with disinterest. She straightened in the seat and glanced out of the window. “Are we stopping for gas?”

  “That and directions,” Dan Rolland told her. “According to the map, this must be Blackwood Village, even though I can’t find a sign anywhere. It shouldn’t be far to the school now. Madame Duret’s letter said it was only about ten miles past the town limits.”

  The service station was small, with only one pump and one attendant, who could be seen through the open door, sitting with his feet propped on the cash register, reading a magazine. Kit glanced down the narrow street where the one block was lined with storefronts—a grocery store, a pharmacy, a hardware store, and a gift shop with a display of trendy items in the window.

  “It’s the middle of nowhere,” she said. “There isn’t even a movie theater.”

  “I think it’s nice,” Mrs. Rolland said. “I grew up in a little town like this one and it was delightful, with no noise, no pressure, everybody knowing everybody else. I didn’t realize places like this existed anymore.”

  “When we get back from Europe,” Dan said, “maybe we can find one. To live in, I mean.” His voice was gentle—phony, Kit thought—like something from a Sunday afternoon TV show. But her mother didn’t seem to think so. She smiled and tilted her head, looking almost girlish, despite the lines at the corners of her eyes and the faint sheen of silver in her dark hair.

  “Could we?” she asked. “But Dan, your work . . .”

  “They have lawyers in little towns as well as big ones. Or I could just drop law altogether and open a movie theater in Blackwood Village.”

  They laughed together, and Kit turned her head.

  “The middle of nowhere,” she grumbled again. “A whole year here! I won’t be able to stand it.”

  “I wouldn’t worry.” The gentleness was gone from Dan’s voice. “I doubt that you’ll be getting into the village very often. Your life will be pretty centered around the school.”

  He gave the horn a beep and the attendant looked up, startled, took a moment to adjust to the summons, and slowly laid his magazine on the counter. He stretched, yawned, and finally got to his feet to come begrudgingly out to the car.

  “Want some gas, Mister? You can pump it yourself and pay inside.”

  “I’ll do that,” Dan said, “but I also need directions. Can you tell us how to find the Blackwood School for Girls?”

  “Around here?” The man looked bewildered.

  “It’s a boarding school run by a Madame Duret. The post office address is Blackwood Village, but the school itself is supposed to be out of town a ways. It used to be a private home owned by a man named Brewer.”

  “Oh, the Brewer place!” The man nodded in recognition. “Well, sure, I know where that is. I did hear that some foreign lady had bought the place. She’s had some of the town people up there during the summer getting it into shape, fixing the roof and the grounds and all. I think she’s hired Bob Culler’s girl Natalie to do kitchen work.”

  “Can you tell us how to get there?” Dan asked patiently.

  “That’s easy enough. Just follow this road through town and out the other side. It’ll take you up into the hills, and you’ll see a private road cutting in from the left.”

  He turned and went back inside, and Kit sighed, leaning her head back against the seat.

  “Honey, please.” Her mother turned to look at her with worried eyes. “Just give the school a chance. The pictures were so lovely with that wonderful old house and the pond and the woods all around it, and Madame Duret was so charming when we met her last spring. You seemed happy enough about going when we first suggested it.”

  “That’s when I thought Tracy was going,” Kit said. “I still don’t see why I can’t go to Europe with you and Dan. I won’t be any trouble. I’m sixteen. I can take care of myself.”

  “Kit, that’s enough.” There was an edge to Dan’s voice. “We’ve been over it and over it. I know your position in the family has been different from that of most girls; with just the two of you, your mother has treated you as her equal rather than a child. You’re strong-willed and independent and very used to running things. But you are not going with us on our honeymoon.”

  “But I don’t see—” Kit began. Dan interrupted her.

  “No more, now. You’re upsetting your mother.”

  He got out of the car, filled the tank, and went inside to pay. Kit and her mom sat in silence until he returned, got into the car, and started the engine. They pulled out onto the street and drove past the block of shop fronts and past another two blocks of small white houses, and then across a bridge over a narrow river where water swirled in frothy tumult between gray stones. Then the town was behind them and they began to climb.

  Trees grew thicker along the sides of the road as the fields gave way to woodland. Dense and dark and still smelling of summer, they laced their branches across the road. Like guards, Kit thought, protecting something that lies beyond.

  Growing up in the city, she had never had a chance to really know trees, only the ones in the park and the few small, thin ones in front of the public library. If you watched those carefully you could mark the seasons by their leaves: translucent green ones in the springtime that then drooped in the summer and crinkled and fell with the autumn frost.

  The trees they passed now were different, wild and strange, living a separate life of their own. Country trees. Mountain trees.

  * * *

  “There’s nothing lovelier than upstate New York in the autumn,” Kit’s mother had said when the brochure describing Blackwood arrived in the mail. “The school sounds perfect. A small, select number of students, individual instruction in music and art, and all sorts of advanced studies that you wouldn’t get in a public high school. When you graduate from Blackwood, Kit, you should be able to get into any college in the country.”

  “This Madame Duret has an impressive background,” Dan had added, studying the written material. “She was the owner and headmistress of a girls’ school in London and before that she had one in Paris. And she has a fantastic knowledge of art. I recall reading an article about her once in Newsweek. One of the paintings she picked up somewhere at an auction turned out to be an original Vermeer.”

  “That would interest Tracy,” Kit had said. Her best friend, Tracy Rosenblum, considered herself an artist.

  “I wonder,” her mother had said thoughtfully, “if the Rosenblums might want to consider sending Tracy to Blackwood. They can certainly afford it, and the two of you have always been inseparable.”

Do you think they might?” Kit’s enthusiasm suddenly went up. She and Tracy had been close friends since elementary school. Going away to boarding school wouldn’t be so bad if Tracy were going too.

  So for six weeks she had drifted along, accepting whatever came—her mother’s marriage to Dan, their plan for a European honeymoon, the reams of tests that were necessary for entrance to Blackwood—confident that soon she would escape it all with her best friend.

  Then the notice had arrived that Tracy had not been accepted. It was as though the bottom had dropped out of Kit’s world.

  “I’m not going!” she had stormed. “It won’t be any fun without Tracy.” But for the first time in her life, she found herself faced with a stubbornness that matched her own.

  “Of course you’re going,” Dan had told her firmly. “You’ll make new friends. Knowing you, I won’t be surprised if you’re elected president of the student body the first week you get there.” He had smiled when he said it but the tone of his voice had left no room for argument.

  Kit had clung to one last hope that her mother might intercede for her, but that had faded today with each passing mile. Now they were on the final lap of the journey, with Blackwood only a matter of minutes away. There could be no turning back at this point; it was time to face the inevitable.

  They almost missed the road because it was not paved. Dan hit the brakes, brought the car to a stop, and backed it up again.

  “Could that be it?” he asked, frowning. “There isn’t any name on it. You’d think there would be a sign of some sort directing us in.”

  “Let’s give it a try,” Kit’s mother suggested. “We’ve come a good ten miles, and there haven’t been any other roads.”

  “Nothing to lose, I guess.” Dan pulled into the lane, and Kit felt the tires sink a little in the rich, damp soil.

  They inched their way along for several yards, and then the road curved and suddenly the trees closed in around them. It was as if the highway behind them never existed, for they were in a world of cool darkness where the only sound was the rustle of leaves and the only odor the wild, sweet smell of earth and woods.

  “This can’t be right,” Dan said.

  They continued inching forward as the road twisted and rose and turned again, and suddenly they were passing through an open gate in a high spiked fence. Gravel crunched beneath the wheels.

  “This is it,” Kit exclaimed, surprised into speech. “There’s the sign—this is Blackwood!”

  For a moment she forgot that she did not want to be there and simply sat, staring wide-eyed at the vista that had opened before them. There on a rise above them stood a house such as she had never envisioned in her strangest dreams.

  It was huge, three stories tall with a black slate roof so steep that it seemed to fall rather than slope to its outer edge. The walls were of gray stone, no two of the same size and shape, yet arranged somehow, one upon another, so as to fit together like a child’s jigsaw puzzle. The huge front door was flanked by stone lions and the steps leading down to the driveway were fashioned of the same stone. Centered on the second-floor level there was a deep-set window of stained glass. The other windows were more ordinary in construction, but the late afternoon sunlight struck them now in such a way that it seemed as though the entire interior of the mansion was ablaze with orange flames.

  “Good lord!” Dan exclaimed, letting his breath out in a low whistle. “You won’t be missing a thing, Kit, by not going with us to Europe. You’re going to be living in a castle.”

  “It didn’t look like this in the brochure,” Kit said. “Did it?”

  She tried to picture the photograph of the school that had been part of the folder, but she could not see it in her mind. It seemed to her that it had been of an ordinary enough looking building, large, of course, as a school would have to be, but nothing special.

  “The picture didn’t do it justice,” her mother said now. “And to think, this was once a private residence! It’s hard to imagine what sort of people must have lived here, way up in the hills so far from the nearest little town.”

  Dan shifted into first gear and they continued up the driveway.

  But for some reason it seemed to Kit that they were not covering any distance. The house stood above them still, no closer than it had been when they had turned in at the gate. It was an illusion, she knew, something to do with the curve of the driveway and the angle at which they were approaching, but the car itself did not seem to be moving. It was as if the house were growing larger, reaching out its great gray arms to gather them in. She could not move her eyes from the glowing windows, dancing before her like a hundred miniature suns. Kit shivered with the sensation of an icy wind blowing across her heart.

  “Mom,” she said softly, and then, more loudly, “Mom?”

  “What is it, honey?” Her mother turned in the seat to look back at her.

  “I don’t want to stay here,” Kit said.

  “Now, look,” Dan said impatiently, “there’s no use rehashing this. We’re not taking you abroad with us, and that’s final. You’d better accept it, Kit. Your mother and—”

  “That’s not it,” Kit said frantically. “I don’t care where I stay, Dan. I’ll go back to the city and live with the Rosenblums while you and Mom are gone. Or I’ll go to another boarding school. There must be plenty of schools that would take me.”

  “What’s the matter, honey?” her mother asked with concern. “It’s a quaint-looking place, but it’s really pretty wonderful. You’ll get used to it. Before you know it, you’ll be as much at home here as you were in P.S. 37.”

  “I’ll never be at home here!” Kit cried. “Can’t you feel it, Mom? There’s something about the place—something—” She couldn’t find the right word, and so she fell silent as the house grew nearer and nearer and then was upon them.

  Dan stopped the car and got out and came around to open the doors. “Here we are,” he said. “Hop out. We may as well check in with Madame Duret, and I’ll come back out for the luggage.”

  And then Kit knew the word for which she had been searching. The word was “evil.”

  The woman who answered the door was completely gray. Her hair was like gray straw, pulled back into a tight bun, and she had the sharp little eyes of a gray mouse. She wore a gray dress, hemmed low, and covered by a starched white apron.

  Her eyes flicked quickly from Kit to her mother and then to Dan. For a moment Kit had the impression that she was going to close the door in their faces.

  “I’m Mr. Rolland,” Dan said to block this possibility. “This is my wife and her daughter, Kathryn Gordy. Madame Duret is expecting us.”

  “This is Monday.” The gray woman spoke with a voice so heavily accented that it was difficult to comprehend the words. “Until tomorrow, the school, it does not open.”

  “We’re aware of that,” Dan said. “We made special arrangements for Kit to arrive a day early. Mrs. Rolland and I are leaving the country tomorrow and we need to drive back to the East Coast tonight.”

  “This is not the day,” the woman said again. “The classes, they do not begin yet.”

  “Lucretia!” A stern voice spoke from the hallway beyond. “These people are expected.”

  A moment later the maid had moved aside and Madame Duret herself stood framed in the doorway, smiling a greeting.

  She hasn’t changed, Kit thought, remembering when they had first seen her. That had been in May when Madame had come into the city to give Kit and Tracy entrance examinations. She had seemed an imposing figure then, and now, against the setting of Blackwood, she was even more so.

  Madame Duret was a tall woman, five foot nine or ten, with olive coloring and a striking, high-boned face. Her height was increased by a pile of rich, black hair which she wore high on her head like a crown, and the strength of her face was accentuated by black brows and a sharp, straight nose. But her most striking feature was her eyes. They were dark and deep-set with a gaze so intense that it could almost
be felt physically.

  “How nice it is to see you again.” Madame’s voice was low-pitched and gracious, with only the slightest suggestion of a French accent. “You must forgive us. Life here has been so disorganized this week with all the preparations for our influx of young people that I did not have the opportunity to mention to Lucretia that one of our girls would be coming early.”

  “I hope we’re not inconveniencing you,” Mrs. Rolland said. “We leave for a cruise tomorrow. There was simply no way—”

  “But of course! Of course! Please come in. Did you have any trouble finding us?”

  “Not really,” Dan said. “We got directions from the village.”

  They fell into step behind Madame Duret as she moved ahead of them through a hallway with a high, arched ceiling into a pleasantly furnished room with a fireplace and a wide-screen TV.

  “Please, sit down.” Madame gestured them to chairs. “What may I offer you? Coffee, perhaps, or wine? What about a glass of sherry?”

  “That would be great,” Dan said. “Ginny?”

  “Lovely,” Kit’s mother said. “Thank you. Really, Madame Duret, I can’t get over this fantastic place. Was it actually once a private home?”

  “Indeed, it was,” Madame said. “Lucretia—” She addressed an aside to the little gray woman, who had appeared noiselessly in the doorway as though in response to a silent summons, “please to bring three sherries and a Coke. You would like a soda, Kathryn, would you not?”

  “Yes, please,” Kit said timidly.

  “This entire estate,” Madame continued, turning back to the Rollands, “was owned by a man named Brewer who died over ten years ago. Since that time it has stood vacant. The heirs, distant cousins of some kind, live on the West Coast and placed it in the hands of a realtor. No one has wanted to buy it, which is understandable; it is no normal one-family residence, as you can see, and standing empty all that time it picked up something of an unusual reputation. Teenagers from the village used to come up here on dates and they would go home with all sorts of weird stories about lights in the windows and bodiless creatures floating through the garden.” She laughed, and the Rollands laughed with her.