The Circular Study, by Anna Katherine Green

Chapter 5

Why the Iron Slide Remained Stationary.

The rest must be told in Thomas’s own words, as it forms the chief part of the confession he made before the detectives:

According to my promise, I took my young wife to Felix’s house on the day and at the hour proposed. We went on foot, for it was not far from the hotel where we were then staying, and were received at the door by an old servant who I had been warned could neither speak nor hear. At sight of him and the dim, old-fashioned hall stretching out in aristocratic gloom before us, Eva turned pale and cast me an inquiring look. But I reassured her with a smile that most certainly contradicted my own secret dread of the interview before us, and taking her on my arm, followed the old man down the hall, past the open drawing-room door (where I certainly thought we should pause), into a room whose plain appearance made me frown, till Bartow, as I have since heard him called, threw aside the portière at one end and introduced us into my brother’s study, which at that moment looked like fairyland, or would have, if Felix, who was its sole occupant, had not immediately drawn our attention to himself by the remarkable force of his personality, never so impressive as at that moment.

Eva, to whom I had said little of this brother, certainly nothing which would lead her to anticipate seeing either so handsome a man or one of such mental poise and imposing character, looked frightened and a trifle awe-struck. But she advanced quite bravely toward him, and at my introduction smiled with such an inviting grace that I secretly expected to see him more or less disarmed by it.

And perhaps he was, for his already pale features turned waxy in the yellow glare cast by the odd lantern over our heads, and the hand he had raised in mechanical greeting fell heavily, and he could barely stammer out some words of welcome. These would have seemed quite inadequate to the occasion if his eyes which were fixed on her face, had not betrayed the fact that he was not without feeling, though she little realized the nature of that feeling or how her very life (for happiness is life) was trembling in the balance under that indomitable will.

I who did know — or thought I did — cast him an imploring glance, and, saying that I had some explanations to make, asked if Mrs. Adams might not rest here while we had a few words apart.

He answered me with a strange look. Did he feel the revolt in my tone and understand then as well as afterward what the nature of my compliance had been? I shall never know. I only know that he stopped fumbling with some small object on the table before him, and, bowing with a sarcastic grace that made me for the first time in my intercourse with him feel myself his inferior, even in size, led the way to a small door I had failed to notice up to this moment.

“Your wife will find it more comfortable here,” he observed, with slow pauses in his speech that showed great, but repressed, excitement. And he opened the door into what had the appearance of a small but elegant sleeping-apartment. “What we have to say cannot take long. Mrs. Adams will not find the wait tedious.”

“No,” she smiled, with a natural laugh, born, as I dare hope, of her perfect happiness. Yet she could not but have considered the proceeding strange, and my manner, as well as his, scarcely what might be expected from a bridegroom introducing his bride to his only relative.

“I will call you —” I began, but the vision of her dimpled face above the great cluster of roses she carried made me forget to complete my sentence, and the door closed, and I found myself face to face with Felix.

He was breathing easier, and his manner seemed more natural now that we were alone, yet he did not speak, but cast a strange, if not inquiring, glance about the room (the weirdest of apartments, as you all well know), and seeming satisfied with what he saw, why I could not tell, led the way up to the large table which from the first had appeared to exert a sort of uncanny magnetism upon him, saying:

“Come further away. I need air, breathing place in this close room, and so must you. Besides, why should she hear what we have to say? She will know the worst soon enough. She seems a gentle-hearted woman.”

“An angel!” I began, but he stopped me with an imperious gesture.

“We will not discuss your wi — Mrs. Adams,” he protested. “Where is John Poindexter?”

“At the hotel,” I rejoined. “Or possibly he has returned home. I no longer take account of his existence. Felix, I shall never leave my wife. I had rather prove recreant to the oath I took before I realized the worth of the woman whose happiness I vowed to destroy. This is what I have come to tell you. Make it easy for me, Felix. You are a man who has loved and suffered. Let us bury the past; let us ——”

Had I hoped I could move him? Perhaps some such child’s notion had influenced me up to this moment. But as these words left my lips, nay, before I had stumbled through them, I perceived by the set look of his features, which were as if cast in bronze, that I might falter, but that he was firm as ever, firmer, it seemed to me, and less easy to be entreated.

Yet what of that? At the worst, what had I to fear? A struggle which might involve Eva in bitter unpleasantness and me in the loss of a fortune I had come to regard almost as my own. But these were petty considerations. Eva must know sooner or later my real name and the story of her father’s guilt. Why not now? And if we must start life poor, it was yet life, while a separation from her ——

Meanwhile Felix had spoken, and in language I was least prepared to hear.

“I anticipated this. From the moment you pleaded with me for the privilege of marrying her, I have looked forward to this outcome and provided against it. Weakness on the part of her bridegroom was to be expected; I have, therefore, steeled myself to meet the emergency; for your oath must be kept!”

Crushed by the tone in which these words were uttered, a tone that evinced power against which any ordinary struggle would end in failure, I cast my eyes about the room in imitation of what I had seen him do a few minutes before. There was nothing within sight calculated to awaken distrust, and yet a feeling of distrust (the first I had really felt) had come with the look he had thrown above and around the mosque-like interior of the room he called his study. Was it the calm confidence he showed, or the weirdness of finding myself amid Oriental splendors and under the influence of night effects in high day and within sound of the clanging street cars and all the accompanying bustle of every-day traffic? It is hard to say; but from this moment on I found myself affected by a vague affright, not on my own account, but on hers whose voice we could plainly hear humming a gay tune in the adjoining apartment. But I was resolved to suppress all betrayal of uneasiness. I even smiled, though I felt the eyes of Evelyn’s pictured countenance upon me; Evelyn’s, whose portrait I had never lost sight of from the moment of entering the room, though I had not given it a direct look and now stood with my back to it. Felix, who faced it, but who did not raise his eyes to it, waited a moment for my response, and finding that my words halted, said again:

“That oath must be kept!”

This time I found words with which to answer. “Impossible!” I burst out, flinging doubt, fear, hesitancy, everything I had hitherto trembled at to the winds. “It was in my nature to take it, worked upon as I was by family affection, the awfulness of our father’s approaching death, and a thousand uncanny influences all carefully measured and prepared for this end. But it is not in my nature to keep it after four months of natural living in the companionship of a man thirty years removed from his guilt, and of his guileless and wholly innocent daughter. And you cannot drive me to it, Felix. No man can force another to abandon his own wife because of a wicked oath taken long before he knew her. If you think your money ——”

“Money?” he cried, with a contempt that did justice to my disinterestedness as well as his own. “I had forgotten I had it. No, Thomas, I should never weigh money against the happiness of living with such a woman as your wife appears to be. But her life I might. Carry out your threat; forget to pay John Poindexter the debt we owe him, and the matter will assume a seriousness for which you are doubtless poorly prepared. A daughter dead in her honeymoon will be almost as great a grief to him as a dishonored one. And either dead or dishonored he must find her, when he comes here in search of the child he cannot long forget. Which shall it be? Speak!”

Was I dreaming? Was this Felix? Was this myself? And was it in my ears these words were poured?

With a spring I reached his side where he stood close against the table, and groaned rather than shrieked the words:

“You would not kill her! You do not meditate a crime of blood — here — on her — the innocent — the good ——”

“No,” he said; “it will be you who will do that. You who will not wish to see her languish — suffer — go mad — Thomas, I am not the raving being you take me for. I am merely a keeper of oaths. Nay, I am more. I have talents, skill. The house in which you find yourself is proof of this. This room — see, it has no outlet save those windows, scarcely if at all perceptible to you, above our heads, and that opening shielded now by a simple curtain, but which in an instant, without my moving from this place, I can so hermetically seal that no man, save he be armed with crowbar and pickaxe, could enter here, even if man could know of our imprisonment, in a house soon to be closed from top to bottom by my departing servant.”

“May God protect us!” fell from my lips, as, stiff with horror, I let my eyes travel from his determined face, first to the windows high over my head and then to the opening of the door, which, though but a few steps from where I stood, was as far as possible from the room into which my darling had been induced to enter.

Felix, watching me, uttered his explanations as calmly as if the matter were one of every-day significance. “You are looking for the windows,” he remarked. “They are behind those goblin faces you see outlined on the tapestries under the ceiling. As for the door, if you had looked to the left when you entered, you would have detected the edge of a huge steel plate hanging flush with the casing. This plate can be made to slide across that opening in an instant just by the touch of my hand on this button. This done, no power save such as I have mentioned can move it back again, not even my own. I have forces at my command for sending it forward, but none for returning it to its place. Do you doubt my mechanical skill or the perfection of the electrical apparatus I have caused to be placed here? You need not, Thomas; nor need you doubt the will that has only to exert itself for an instant to — Shall I press the button, brother?”

“No, no!” I shouted in a frenzy, caused rather by my knowledge of the nature of this man than any especial threat apparent in his voice or gesture. “Let me think; let me know more fully what your requirements are — what she must suffer if I consent — and what I.”

He let his hand slip back, that smooth white hand which I had more than once surveyed in admiration. Then he smiled.

“I knew you would not be foolish,” he said. “Life has its charms even for hermits like me; and for a beau garçon such as you are ——”

“Hush!” I interposed, maddened into daring his full anger. “It is not my life I am buying, but hers, possibly yours; for it seems you have planned to perish with us. Is it not so?”

“Certainly,” was his cold reply. “Am I an assassin? Would you expect me to live, knowing you to be perishing?”

I stared aghast. Such resolve, such sacrifice of self to an idea was beyond my comprehension.

“Why — what?” I stammered. “Why kill us, why kill yourself ——”

The answer overwhelmed me.

“Remember Evelyn!” shrilled a voice, and I paused, struck dumb with a superstitious horror I had never believed myself capable of experiencing. For it was not Felix who spoke, neither was it any utterance of my own aroused conscience. Muffled, strange, and startling it came from above, from the hollow spaces of that high vault lit with the golden glow that henceforth can have but one meaning for me — death.

“What is it?” I asked. “Another of your mechanical contrivances?”

He smiled; I had rather he had frowned.

“Not exactly. A favorite bird, a starling. Alas! he but repeats what he has heard echoed through the solitude of these rooms. I thought I had smothered him up sufficiently to insure his silence during this interview. But he is a self-willed bird, and seems disposed to defy the wrappings I have bound around him; which fact warns me to be speedy and hasten our explanations. Thomas, this is what I require: John Poindexter — you do not know where he is at this hour, but I do — received a telegram but now, which, if he is a man at all, will bring him to this house in a half-hour or so from the present moment. It was sent in your name, and in it you informed him that matters had arisen which demanded his immediate attention; that you were on your way to your brother’s (giving him this address), where, if you found entrance, you would await his presence in a room called the study; but that — and here you will see how his coming will not aid us if that steel plate is once started on its course — if the possible should occur and your brother should be absent from home, then he was to await a message from you at the Plaza. The appearance of the house would inform him whether he would find you and Eva within; or so I telegraphed him in your name.

“Thomas, if Bartow fulfils my instructions — and I have never know him to fail me — he will pass down these stairs and out of this house in just five minutes. As he is bound on a long-promised journey, and as he expects me to leave the house immediately after him, he has drawn every shade and fastened every lock. Consequently, on his exit, the house will become a tomb, to which, just two weeks from to-day, John Poindexter will be called again, and in words which will lead to a demolition which will disclose — what? Let us not forestall the future, our horrible future, by inquiring. But Thomas, shall Bartow go? Shall I not by signs he comprehends more readily than other men comprehend speech indicate to him on his downward passage to the street that I wish him to wait and open the door to the man whom we have promised to overwhelm in his hour of satisfaction and pride? You have only to write a line — see! I have made a copy of the words you must use, lest your self-command should be too severely taxed. These words left on this table for his inspection — for you must go and Eva remain — will tell him all he needs to know from you. The rest can come from my lips after he has read the signature, which in itself will confound him and prepare the way for what I have to add. Have you anything to say against this plan? Anything, I mean, beyond what you have hitherto urged? Anything that I will consider or which will prevent my finger from pressing the button on which it rests?”

I took up the paper. It was lying on the table, where it had evidently been inscribed simultaneously with or just before our entrance into the house, and slowly read the few lines I saw written upon it. You know them, but they will acquire a new significance from your present understanding of their purpose and intent:

I return you back your daughter. Neither she nor you will ever see me again. Remember Evelyn!

AMOS’S SON.

“You wish me to sign these words, to put them into my own handwriting, and so to make them mine? Mine!” I repeated.

“Yes, and to leave them here on this table for him to see when he enters. He might not believe any mere statement from me in regard to your intentions.”

I was filled with horror. Love, life, human hopes, the world’s friendships — all the possibilities of existence, swept in one concentrated flood of thought and feeling through my outraged consciousness, and I knew I could never put my name to such a blasphemy of all that was sacred to man’s soul. Tossing the paper in his face, I cried:

“You have gone too far! Better her death, better mine, better the destruction of us all, than such dishonor to the purest thing heaven ever made. I refuse, Felix — I refuse. And may God have mercy on us all!”

The moment was ghastly. I saw his face change, his finger tremble where it hovered above the fatal button; saw — though only in imagination as yet — the steely edge of that deadly plate of steel advancing beyond the lintel, and was about to dare all in a sudden grapple with this man, when a sound from another direction caught my ear, and looking around in terror of the only intrusion we could fear, beheld Eva advancing from the room in which we had placed her.

That moment a blood-red glow took the place of the sickly yellow which had hitherto filled every recess of this weird apartment. But I scarcely noticed the change, save as it affected her pallor and gave to her cheeks the color that was lacking in the roses at her belt.

Fearless and sweet as in the hour when she first told me that she loved me, she approached and stood before us.

“What is this?” she cried. “I have heard words that sound more like the utterances of some horrid dream than the talk of men and brothers. What does it mean, Thomas? What does it mean, Mr. ——”

“Cadwalader,” announced Felix, dropping his eyes from her face, but changing not a whit his features or posture.

“Cadwalader?” The name was not to her what it was to her father. “Cadwalader? I have heard that name in my father’s house; it was Evelyn’s name, the Evelyn who ——”

“Whom you see painted there over your head,” finished Felix, “my sister, Thomas’s sister — the girl whom your father — but I spare you, child though you be of a man who spared nothing. From your husband you may learn why a Cadwalader can never find his happiness with a Poindexter. Why thirty or more years after that young girl’s death, you who were not then born are given at this hour the choice between death and dishonor. I allow you just five minutes in which to listen. After that you will let me know your joint decision. Only you must make your talk where you stand. A step taken by either of you to right or left, and Thomas knows what will follow.”

Five minutes, with such a justification to make, and such a decision to arrive at! I felt my head swim, my tongue refuse its office, and stood dumb and helpless before her till the sight of her dear eyes raised in speechless trust to mine flooded me with a sense of triumph amid all the ghastly terrors of the moment, and I broke out in a tumult of speech, in excuses, explanations, all that comes to one in a more than mortal crisis.

She listened, catching my meaning rather from my looks than my words. Then as the minutes fled and my brother raised a warning hand, she turned toward him, and said:

“You are in earnest? We must separate in shame or perish in this prison-house with you?”

His answer was mere repetition, mechanical, but firm:

“You have said it. You have but one minute more, madam.”

She shrank, and all her powers seemed leaving her, then a reaction came, and a flaming angel stood where but a moment before the most delicate of women weakly faltered; and giving me a look to see if I had the courage or the will to lift my hand against my own flesh and blood (alas for us both! I did not understand her) caught up an old Turkish dagger lying only too ready to her hand, and plunged it with one sideways thrust into his side, crying:

“We cannot part, we cannot die, we are too young, too happy!”

It was sudden; the birth of purpose in her so unexpected and so rapid that Felix, the ready, who was prepared for all contingencies, for the least movement or suggestion of escape, faltered and pressed, not the fatal button, but his heart.

One impulsive act on the part of a woman had overthrown all the fine-spun plans of the subtlest spirit that ever attempted to work its will in the face of God and man.

But I did not think of this then; I did not even bestow a thought upon the narrowness of our escape, or the price which the darling of my heart might be called upon to pay for this supreme act of self-defence. My mind, my heart, my interest were with Felix, in whom the nearness of death had called up all that was strongest and most commanding in his strong and commanding spirit.

Though struck to the heart, he had not fallen. It was as if the will which had sustained him through thirty years of mental torture held him erect still, that he might give her, Eva, one look, the like of which I had never seen on mortal face, and which will never leave my heart or hers until we die. Then as he saw her sink shudderingly down and the delicate woman reappear in her pallid and shrunken figure, he turned his eyes on me and I saw — good God! — a tear well up from those orbs of stone and fall slowly down his cheek, fast growing hollow under the stroke of death.

“Eva! Eva! I love Eva!” shrilled the voice which once before had startled me from the hollow vault above.

Felix heard, and a smile faint as the failing rush of blood through his veins moved his lips and brought a revelation to my soul. He, too, loved Eva!

When he saw I knew, the will which had kept him on his feet gave way, and he sank to the floor murmuring:

“Take her away! I forgive. Save! Save! She did not know I loved her.”

Eva, aghast, staring with set eyes at her work, had not moved from her crouching posture. But when she saw that speaking head fall back, the fine limbs settle into the repose of death, a shock went through her which I thought would never leave her reason unimpaired.

“I’ve killed him!” she murmured. “I’ve killed him!” and looking wildly about, her eyes fell on the cross that hung behind us on the wall. It seemed to remind her that Felix was a Catholic. “Bring it!” she gasped. “Let him feel it on his breast. It may bring him peace — hope.”

As I rushed to do her bidding, she fell in a heap on the floor.

“Save!” came again from the lips we thought closed forever in death. And realizing at the words both her danger and the necessity of her not opening her eyes again upon this scene, I laid the cross in his arms, and catching her up from the floor, ran with her out of the house. But no sooner had I caught sight of the busy street and the stream of humanity passing before us, than I awoke to an instant recognition of our peril. Setting my wife down, I commanded life back into her limbs by the force of my own energy, and then dragging her down the steps, mingled with the crowd, encouraging her, breathing for her, living in her till I got her into a carriage and we drove away.

For the silence we have maintained from that time to this you must not blame Mrs. Adams. When she came to herself — which was not for days — she manifested the greatest desire to proclaim her act and assume its responsibility. But I would not have it. I loved her too dearly to see her name bandied about in the papers; and when her father was taken into our confidence, he was equally peremptory in enjoining silence, and shared with me the watch I now felt bound to keep over her movements.

But alas! His was the peremptoriness of pride rather than love. John Poindexter has no more heart for his daughter than he had for his wife or that long-forgotten child from whose grave this tragedy has sprung. Had Felix triumphed he would never have wrung the heart of this man. As he once said, when a man cares for nothing and nobody, not even for himself, it is useless to curse him.

As for Felix himself, judge him not, when you realize, as you now must, that his last conscious act was to reach for and put in his mouth the paper which connected Eva with his death. At the moment of death his thought was to save, not to avenge. And this after her hand had struck him.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37