Her right ankle turned under her and she fell. The wind blowing downhill from the south, whipping the trees beside the road, made a whisper of her exclamation and snatched her scarf away into the darkness. She sat up slowly, palms on the gravel pushing her up, and twisted her body sidewise to release the leg bent beneath her.
Her right slipper lay in the road close to her feet. When she put it on she found its heel was missing. She peered around, then began to hunt for the heel, hunting on hands and knees uphill into the wind, wincing a little when her right knee touched the road. Presently she gave it up and tried to break the heel off her left slipper, but could not. She replaced the slipper and rose with her back to the wind, leaning back against the wind's violence and the road's steep sloping. Her gown clung to her back, flew fluttering out before her. Hair lashed her cheeks. Walking high on the ball of her right foot to make up for the missing heel, she hobbled on down the hill.
At the bottom of the hill there was a wooden bridge, and, a hundred yards beyond, a sign that could not be read in the darkness marked a fork in the road. She halted there, not looking at the sign but around her, shivering now, though the wind had less force than it had had on the hill. Foliage to her left moved to show and hide yellow light. She took the left-hand fork.
In a little while she came to a gap in the bushes beside the road and sufficient light to show a path running off the road through the gap. The light came from the thinly curtained window of a house at the other end of the path.
She went up the path to the door and knocked. When there was no answer she knocked again.
A hoarse, unemotional masculine voice said: "Come in."
She put her hand on the latch; hesitated. No sound came from within the house. Outside, the wind was noisy everywhere. She knocked once more, gently.
The voice said, exactly as before: "Come in."
She opened the door. The wind blew it in sharply, her hold on the latch dragging her with it so that she had to cling to the door with both hands to keep from falling. The wind went past her into the room, to balloon curtains and scatter the sheets of a newspaper that had been on a table. She forced the door shut and, still leaning against it, said: "I am sorry." She took pains with her words to make them clear notwithstanding her accent.
The man cleaning a pipe at the hearth said: "It's all right." His copperish eyes were as impersonal as his hoarse voice. "I'll be through in a minute." He did not rise from his chair. The edge of the knife in his hand rasped inside the brier bowl of his pipe.
She left the door and came forward, limping, examining him with perplexed eyes under brows drawn a little together. She was a tall woman and carried herself proudly, for all she was lame and the wind had tousled her hair and the gravel of the road had cut and dirtied her hands and bare arms and the red crepe of her gown.
She said, still taking pains with her words: "I must go to the railroad. I have hurt my ankle on the road. Eh?"
He looked up from his work then. His sallow, heavily featured face, under coarse hair nearly the color of his eyes, was not definitely hostile or friendly. He looked at the woman's face, at her torn skirt. He did not turn his head to call: "Hey, Evelyn."
A girl--slim maturing body in tan sport clothes, slender sunburned face with dark bright eyes and dark short hair--came into the room through a doorway behind him.
The man did not look around at her. He nodded at the woman in red and said: "This--"
The woman interrupted him: "My name is Luise Fischer."
The man said: "She's got a bum leg."
Evelyn's dark prying eyes shifted their focus from the woman to the man--she could not see his face--and to the woman again. She smiled, speaking hurriedly: "I'm just leaving. I can drop you at Mile Valley on my way home."
The woman seemed about to smile. Under her curious gaze Evelyn suddenly blushed, and her face became defiant while it reddened. The girl was pretty. Facing her, the woman had become beautiful; her eyes were long, heavily lashed, set well apart under a smooth broad brow, her mouth was not small but sensitively carved and mobile, and in the light from the open fire the surfaces of her face were as clearly defined as sculptured planes.
The man blew through his pipe, forcing out a small cloud of black powder. "No use hurrying," he said. "There's no train till six." He looked up at the clock on the mantelpiece. It said ten-thirty-three. "Why don't you her with her leg?"
The woman said: "No, it is not necessary. I--" She put her weight on her injured leg and flinched, steadying herself with a hand on the back of a chair.
The girl hurried to her, stammering contritely: "I--I didn't think. Forgive me." She put an arm around the woman and helped her into the chair.
The man stood up to put his pipe on the mantelpiece, beside the clock. He was of medium height, but his sturdiness made him look shorter. His neck, rising from the V of a gray sweater, was short, powerfully muscled. Below the sweater he wore loose gray trousers and heavy brown shoes. He clicked his knife shut and put it in his pocket before turning to look at Luise Fischer.
Evelyn was on her knees in front of the woman, pulling off her right stocking, making sympathetic clucking noises, chattering nervously: "You've cut your knee too. Tch-tch-tch! And look how your ankle's swelling. You shouldn't have tried to walk all that distance in these slippers." Her body hid the woman's bare leg from the man. "Now, sit still and I'll fix it up in a minute." She pulled the torn red skirt down over the bare leg.
The woman's smile was polite. She said carefully: "You are very kind."
The girl ran out of the room.
The man had a paper package of cigarettes in his hand. He shook it until three cigarettes protruded half an inch and held them out to her. "Smoke?"
"Thank you." She took a cigarette, put it between her lips, and looked at his hand when he held a match to it. His hand was thick-boned, muscular, but not a laborer's. She looked through her lashes at his face while he was lighting his cigarette. He was younger than he had seemed at first glance--perhaps no older than thirty-two or -three--and his features, in the flare of his match, seemed less stolid than disciplined.
"Bang it up much?" His tone was merely conversational.
"I hope I have not." She drew up her skirt to look first at her ankle, then at her knee. The ankle was perceptibly though not greatly swollen; the knee was cut once deeply, twice less seriously. She touched the edges of the cuts gently with a forefinger. "I do not like pain," she said very earnestly.
Evelyn came in with a basin of steaming water, cloths, a roll of bandage, salve. Her dark eyes widened at the man and woman, but were hidden by lowered lids by the time their faces had turned toward her. "I'll fix it now. I'll have it all fixed in a minute." She knelt in front of the woman again, nervous hand sloshing water on the floor, body between Luise Fischer's leg and the man.
He went to the door and looked out, holding the door half a foot open against the wind.
The woman asked the girl bathing her ankle: "There is not a train before it is morning?" She pursed her lips thoughtfully.
The man shut the door and said: "It'll be raining in an hour." He put more wood on the fire, then stood--legs apart, hands in pockets, cigarette dangling from one side of his mouth--watching Evelyn attend to the woman's leg. His face was placid.
The girl dried the ankle and began to wind a bandage around it, working with increasing speed, breathing more rapidly now. Once more the woman seemed about to smile at the girl, but instead she said, "You are very kind."
The girl murmured: "It's nothing."
Three sharp knocks sounded on the door.
Luise Fischer started, dropped her cigarette, looked swiftly around the room with frightened eyes. The girl did not raise her head from her work. The man, with nothing in his face or manner to show he had noticed the woman's fright, turned his face toward the door and called in his hoarse, matter-of-fact voice: "All right. Come in."
Excerpted from Woman in the Dark by Dashiell Hammett. Copyright © 1960 by Dashiell Hammett. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.