The brother and sister exchanged very few words during the drive between Stony Stringford and Marchmont Towers. It was arranged between them that Mrs. Weston should drive by a back-way leading to a lane that skirted the edge of the river, and that Paul should get out at a gate opening into the wood, and by that means make his way, unobserved, to the house which had so lately been to all intents and purposes his own.
He dared not attempt to enter the Towers by any other way; for the indignant populace might still be lurking about the front of the house, eager to inflict summary vengeance upon the persecutor of a helpless girl.
It was between nine and ten o’clock when Mr. Marchmont got out at the little gate. All here was very still; and Paul heard the croaking of the frogs upon the margin of a little pool in the wood, and the sound of horses’ hoofs a mile away upon the loose gravel by the water-side.
“Good night, Lavinia,” he said. “Send for the things as soon as you go back; and be sure you send a safe person for them.”
“O yes, dear; but hadn’t you better take any thing of value yourself?” Mrs. Weston asked anxiously. “You say you have no money. Perhaps it would be best for you to send me the jewellery, though, and I can send you what money you want by my messenger.”
“I shan’t want any money — at least I have enough for what I want. What have you done with your savings?”
“They are in a London bank. But I have plenty of ready money in the house. You must want money, Paul?”
“I tell you, no; I have as much as I want.”
“But tell me your plans, Paul; I must know your plans before I leave Lincolnshire myself. Are you going away?”
“Shall you go to London?”
“Perhaps. I don’t know yet.”
“But when shall we see you again, Paul? or how shall we hear of you?”
“I’ll write to you.”
“At the Post-office in Rathbone Place. Don’t bother me with a lot of questions to-night Lavinia; I’m not in the humour to answer them.”
Paul Marchmont turned away from his sister impatiently, and opened the gate; but before she had driven off, he went back to her.
“Shake hands, Lavinia,” he said; “shake hands, my dear; it may be a long time before you and I meet again.”
He bent down and kissed his sister.
“Drive home as fast as you can, and send the messenger directly. He had better come to the door of the lobby, near Olivia’s room. Where is Olivia, by-the-bye? Is she still with the stepdaughter she loves so dearly?”
“No; she went to Swampington early in the afternoon. A fly was ordered from the Black Bull, and she went away in it.”
“So much the better,” answered Mr. Marchmont. “Good night, Lavinia. Don’t let my mother think ill of me. I tried to do the best I could to make her happy. Good-bye.”
“Good-bye, dear Paul; God bless you!”
The blessing was invoked with as much sincerity as if Lavinia Weston had been a good woman, and her brother a good man. Perhaps neither of those two was able to realise the extent of the crime which they had assisted each other to commit.
Mrs. Weston drove away; and Paul went up to the back of the Towers, and under an archway leading into the quadrangle. All about the house was as quiet as if the Sleeping Beauty and her court had been its only occupants.
The inhabitants of Kemberling and the neighbourhood were an orderly people, who burnt few candles between May and September; and however much they might have desired to avenge Mary Arundel’s wrongs by tearing Paul Marchmont to pieces, their patience had been exhausted by nightfall, and they had been glad to return to their respective abodes, to discuss Paul’s iniquities comfortably over the nine-o’clock beer.
Paul stood still in the quadrangle for a few moments, and listened. He could hear no human breath or whisper; he only heard the sound of the corn-crake in the fields to the right of the Towers, and the distant rumbling of wagon-wheels on the high-road. There was a glimmer of light in one of the windows belonging to the servants’ offices — only one dim glimmer, where there had usually been a row of brilliantly-lighted casements. Lavinia was right, then; almost all the servants had left the Towers. Paul tried to open the half-glass door leading into the lobby; but it was locked. He rang a bell; and after about three minutes’ delay, a buxom country-girl appeared in the lobby carrying a candle. She was some kitchenmaid or dairymaid or scullerymaid, whom Paul could not remember to have ever seen until now. She opened the door, and admitted him, dropping a curtsey as he passed her. There was some relief even in this. Mr. Marchmont had scarcely expected to get into the house at all; still less to be received with common civility by any of the servants, who had so lately obeyed him and fawned upon him.
“Where are all the rest of the servants?” he asked.
“They’re all gone, sir; except him as you brought down from London — Mr. Peterson — and me and mother. Mother’s in the laundry, sir; and I’m scullerymaid.”
“Why did the other servants leave the place?”
“Mostly because they was afraid of the mob upon the terrace, I think, sir; for there’s been people all the afternoon throwin’ stones, and breakin’ the windows; and I don’t think as there’s a whole pane of glass in the front of the house, sir; and Mr. Gormby, sir, he come about four o’clock, and he got the people to go away, sir, by tellin’ ’em as it wern’t your property, sir, but the young lady’s, Miss Mary Marchmont — leastways, Mrs. Airendale — as they was destroyin’ of; but most of the servants had gone before that, sir, except Mr. Peterson; and Mr. Gormby gave orders as me and mother was to lock all the doors, and let no one in upon no account whatever; and he’s coming to-morrow mornin’ to take possession, he says; and please, sir, you can’t come in; for his special orders to me and mother was, no one, and you in particklar.”
“Nonsense, girl!” exclaimed Mr. Marchmont, decisively; “who is Mr. Gormby, that he should give orders as to who comes in or stops out? I’m only coming in for half an hour, to pack my portmanteau. Where’s Peterson?”
“In the dinin’-room, sir; but please, sir, you mustn’t ——”
The girl made a feeble effort to intercept Mr. Marchmont, in accordance with the steward’s special orders; which were, that Paul should, upon no pretence whatever, be suffered to enter the house. But the artist snatched the candlestick from her hand, and went towards the dining-room, leaving her to stare after him in amazement.
Paul found his valet Peterson, taking what he called a snack, in the dining-room. A cloth was spread upon the corner of the table; and there was a fore-quarter of cold roast-lamb, a bottle of French brandy, and a decanter half-full of Madeira before the valet.
He started as his master entered the room, and looked up, not very respectfully, but with no unfriendly glance.
“Give me half a tumbler of that brandy, Peterson,” said Mr. Marchmont.
The man obeyed; and Paul drained the fiery spirit as if it had been so much water. It was four-and-twenty hours since meat or drink had crossed his dry white lips.
“Why didn’t you go away with the rest?” he asked, as he set down the empty glass.
“It’s only rats, sir, that run away from a falling house. I stopped, thinkin’ you’d be goin’ away somewhere, and that you’d want me.”
The solid and unvarnished truth of the matter was, that Peterson had taken it for granted that his master had made an excellent purse against this evil day, and would be ready to start for the Continent or America, there to lead a pleasant life upon the proceeds of his iniquity. The valet never imagined his master guilty of such besotted folly as to be unprepared for this catastrophe.
“I thought you might still want me, sir,” he said; “and wherever you’re going, I’m quite ready to go too. You’ve been a good master to me, sir; and I don’t want to leave a good master because things go against him.”
Paul Marchmont shook his head, and held out the empty tumbler for his servant to pour more brandy into it.
“I am going away,” he said; “but I want no servant where I’m going; but I’m grateful to you for your offer, Peterson. Will you come upstairs with me? I want to pack a few things.”
“They’re all packed, sir. I knew you’d be leaving, and I’ve packed everything.”
“Yes, sir. You’ve got the key of that.”
“Yes; I know, I know.”
Paul Marchmont was silent for a few minutes, thinking. Everything that he had in the way of personal property of any value was in the dressing-case of which he had spoken. There was five or six hundred pounds’ worth of jewellery in Mr. Marchmont’s dressing-case; for the first instinct of the nouveau riche exhibits itself in diamond shirt-studs, cameo rings, malachite death’s-heads with emerald eyes; grotesque and pleasing charms in the form of coffins, coal-scuttles, and hobnailed boots; fantastical lockets of ruby and enamel; wonderful bands of massive yellow gold, studded with diamonds, wherein to insert the two ends of flimsy lace cravats. Mr. Marchmont reflected upon the amount of his possessions, and their security in the jewel-drawer of his dressing-case. The dressing-case was furnished with a Chubb’s lock, the key of which he carried in his waistcoat-pocket. Yes, it was all safe.
“Look here, Peterson,” said Paul Marchmont; “I think I shall sleep at Mrs. Weston’s to-night. I should like you to take my dressing-case down there at once.”
“And how about the other luggage, sir — the portmanteaus and hat-boxes?”
“Never mind those. I want you to put the dressing-case safe in my sister’s hands. I can send here for the rest to-morrow morning. You needn’t wait for me now. I’ll follow you in half an hour.”
“Yes, sir. You want the dressing-case carried to Mrs. Weston’s house, and I’m to wait for you there?”
“Yes; you can wait for me.”
“But is there nothing else I can do, sir?”
“Nothing whatever. I’ve only got to collect a few papers, and then I shall follow you.”
The discreet Peterson bowed, and retired to fetch the dressing-case. He put his own construction upon Mr. Marchmont’s evident desire to get rid of him, and to be left alone at the Towers. Paul had, of course, made a purse, and had doubtless put his money away in some very artful hiding-place, whence he now wanted to take it at his leisure. He had stuffed one of his pillows with bank-notes, perhaps; or had hidden a cash-box behind the tapestry in his bedchamber; or had buried a bag of gold in the flower-garden below the terrace. Mr. Peterson went upstairs to Paul’s dressing-room, put his hand through the strap of the dressing-case, which was very heavy, went downstairs again, met his master in the hall, and went out at the lobby-door.
Paul locked the door upon his valet, and then went back into the lonely house, where the ticking of the clocks in the tenantless rooms sounded unnaturally loud in the stillness. All the windows had been broken; and though the shutters were shut, the cold night-air blew in at many a crack and cranny, and well-nigh extinguished Mr. Marchmont’s candle as he went from room to room looking about him.
He went into the western drawing-room, and lighted some of the lamps in the principal chandelier. The shutters were shut, for the windows here, as well as elsewhere, had been broken; fragments of shivered glass, great jagged stones, and handfuls of gravel, lay about upon the rich carpet — the velvet-pile which he had chosen with such artistic taste, such careful deliberation. He lit the lamps and walked about the room, looking for the last time at his treasures. Yes, his treasures. It was he who had transformed this chamber from a prim, old-fashioned sitting-room — with quaint japanned cabinets, shabby chintz-cushioned cane-chairs, cracked Indian vases, and a faded carpet — into a saloon that would have been no discredit to Buckingham Palace or Alton Towers.
It was he who had made the place what it was. He had squandered the savings of Mary’s minority upon pictures that the richest collector in England might have been proud to own; upon porcelain that would have been worthy of a place in the Vienna Museum or the Bernal Collection. He had done this, and these things were to pass into the possession of the man he hated — the fiery young soldier who had horsewhipped him before the face of wondering Lincolnshire. He walked about the room, thinking of his life since he had come into possession of this place, and of what it had been before that time, and what it must be again, unless he summoned up a desperate courage — and killed himself.
His heart beat fast and loud, and he felt an icy chill creeping slowly through his every vein as he thought of this. How was he to kill himself? He had no poison in his possession — no deadly drug that would reduce the agony of death to the space of a lightning-flash. There were pistols, rare gems of choicest workmanship, in one of the buhl-cabinets in that very room; there were both fowling-piece and ammunition in Mr. Marchmont’s dressing-room: but the artist was not expert with the use of firearms, and he might fail in the attempt to blow out his brains, and only maim or disfigure himself hideously. There was the river — the black, sluggish river: but then, drowning is a slow death, and Heaven only knows how long the agony may seem to the wretch who endures it! Alas! the ghastly truth of the matter is that Mr. Marchmont was afraid of death. Look at the King of Terrors how he would, he could not discover any pleasing aspect under which he could meet the grim monarch without flinching.
He looked at life; but if life was less terrible than death, it was not less dreary. He looked forward with a shudder to see — what? Humiliation, disgrace, perhaps punishment — life-long transportation, it may be; for this base conspiracy might be a criminal offence, amenable to criminal law. Or, escaping all this, what was there for him? What was there for this man even then? For forty years he had been steeped to the lips in poverty, and had endured his life. He looked back now, and wondered how it was that he had been patient; he wondered why he had not made an end of himself and his obscure troubles twenty years before this night. But after looking back a little longer, he saw the star which had illumined the darkness of that miserable and sordid existence, and he understood the reason of his endurance. He had hoped. Day after day he had got up to go through the same troubles, to endure the same humiliations: but every day, when his life had been hardest to him, he had said, “To-morrow I may be master of Marchmont Towers.” But he could never hope this any more; he could not go back to watch and wait again, beguiled by the faint hope that Mary Arundel’s son might die, and to hear by-and-by that other children were born to her to widen the great gulf betwixt him and fortune.
He looked back, and he saw that he had lived from day to day, from year to year, lured on by this one hope. He looked forward, and he saw that he could not live without it.
There had never been but this one road to good fortune open to him. He was a clever man, but his was not the cleverness which can transmute itself into solid cash. He could only paint indifferent pictures; and he had existed long enough by picture-painting to realise the utter hopelessness of success in that career.
He had borne his life while he was in it, but he could not bear to go back to it. He had been out of it, and had tasted another phase of existence; and he could see it all now plainly, as if he had been a spectator sitting in the boxes and watching a dreary play performed upon a stage before him. The performers in the remotest provincial theatre believe in the play they are acting. The omnipotence of passion creates dewy groves and moonlit atmospheres, ducal robes and beautiful women. But the metropolitan spectator, in whose mind the memory of better things is still fresh, sees that the moonlit trees are poor distemper daubs, pushed on by dirty carpenters, and the moon a green bottle borrowed from a druggist’s shop, the ducal robes threadbare cotton velvet and tarnished tinsel, and the heroine of the drama old and ugly.
So Paul looked at the life he had endured, and wondered as he saw how horrible it was.
He could see the shabby lodging, the faded furniture, the miserable handful of fire struggling with the smoke in a shallow grate, that had been half-blocked up with bricks by some former tenant as badly off as himself. He could look back at that dismal room, with the ugly paper on the walls, the scanty curtains flapping in the wind which they pretended to shut out; the figure of his mother sitting near the fireplace, with that pale, anxious face, which was a perpetual complaint against hardship and discomfort. He could see his sister standing at the window in the dusky twilight, patching up some worn-out garment, and straining her eyes for the sake of economising in the matter of half an inch of candle. And the street below the window — the shabby-genteel street, with a dingy shop breaking out here and there, and children playing on the doorsteps, and a muffin-bell jingling through the evening fog, and a melancholy Italian grinding “Home, sweet Home!” in the patch of lighted road opposite the pawnbroker’s. He saw it all; and it was all alike — sordid, miserable, hopeless.
Paul Marchmont had never sunk so low as his cousin John. He had never descended so far in the social scale as to carry a banner at Drury Lane, or to live in one room in Oakley Street, Lambeth. But there had been times when to pay the rent of three rooms had been next kin to an impossibility to the artist, and when the honorarium of a shilling a night would have been very acceptable to him. He had drained the cup of poverty to the dregs; and now the cup was filled again, and the bitter draught was pushed once more into his unwilling hand.
He must drink that, or another potion — a sleeping-draught, which is commonly called Death. He must die! But how? His coward heart sank as the awful alternative pressed closer upon him. He must die! — to-night — at once — in that house; so that when they came in the morning to eject him, they would have little trouble; they would only have to carry out a corpse.
He walked up and down the room, biting his finger-nails to the quick, but coming to no resolution, until he was interrupted by the ringing of the bell at the lobby-door. It was the messenger from his sister, no doubt. Paul drew his watch from his waistcoat-pocket, unfastened his chain, took a set of gold-studs from the breast of his shirt, and a signet-ring from his finger; then he sat down at a writing-table, and packed the watch and chain, the studs and signet-ring, and a bunch of keys, in a large envelope. He sealed this packet, and addressed it to his sister; then he took a candle, and went to the lobby. Mrs. Weston had sent a young man who was an assistant and pupil of her husband’s — a good-tempered young fellow, who willingly served her in her hour of trouble. Paul gave this messenger the key of his dressing-case and packet.
“You will be sure and put that in my sister’s hands,” he said.
“O yes, sir. Mrs. Weston gave me this letter for you, sir. Am I to wait for an answer?”
“No; there will be no answer. Good night.”
“Good night, sir.”
The young man went away; and Paul Marchmont heard him whistle a popular melody as he walked along the cloistered way and out of the quadrangle by a low archway commonly used by the tradespeople who came to the Towers.
The artist stood and listened to the young man’s departing footsteps. Then, with a horrible thrill of anguish, he remembered that he had seen his last of humankind — he had heard his last of human voices: for he was to kill himself that night. He stood in the dark lobby, looking out into the quadrangle. He was quite alone in the house; for the girl who had let him in was in the laundry with her mother. He could see the figures of the two women moving about in a great gaslit chamber upon the other side of the quadrangle — a building which had no communication with the rest of the house. He was to die that night; and he had not yet even determined how he was to die.
He mechanically opened Mrs. Weston’s letter: it was only a few lines, telling him that Peterson had arrived with the portmanteau and dressing-case, and that there would be a comfortable room prepared for him. “I am so glad you have changed your mind, and are coming to me, Paul,” Mrs. Weston concluded. “Your manner, when we parted to-night, almost alarmed me.”
Paul groaned aloud as he crushed the letter in his hand. Then he went back to the western drawing-room. He heard strange noises in the empty rooms as he passed by their open doors, weird creaking sounds and melancholy moanings in the wide chimneys. It seemed as if all the ghosts of Marchmont Towers were astir to-night, moved by an awful prescience of some coming horror.
Paul Marchmont was an atheist; but atheism, although a very pleasant theme for a critical and argumentative discussion after a lobster-supper and unlimited champagne, is but a poor staff to lean upon when the worn-out traveller approaches the mysterious portals of the unknown land.
The artist had boasted of his belief in annihilation; and had declared himself perfectly satisfied with a materialistic or pantheistic arrangement of the universe, and very indifferent as to whether he cropped up in future years as a summer-cabbage, or a new Raphael; so long as the ten stone or so of matter of which he was composed was made use of somehow or other, and did its duty in the great scheme of a scientific universe. But, oh! how that empty, soulless creed slipped away from him now, when he stood alone in this tenantless house, shuddering at strange spirit-noises, and horrified by a host of mystic fears — gigantic, shapeless terrors — that crowded in his empty, godless mind, and filled it with their hideous presence!
He had refused to believe in a personal God. He had laughed at the idea that there was any Deity to whom the individual can appeal, in his hour of grief or trouble, with the hope of any separate mercy, any special grace. He had rejected the Christian’s simple creed, and now — now that he had floated away from the shores of life, and felt himself borne upon an irresistible current to that mysterious other side, what did he not believe in?
Every superstition that has ever disturbed the soul of ignorant man lent some one awful feature to the crowd of hideous images uprising in this man’s mind:— awful Chaldean gods and Carthaginian goddesses, thirsting for the hot blood of human sacrifices, greedy for hecatombs of children flung shrieking into fiery furnaces, or torn limb from limb by savage beasts; Babylonian abominations; Egyptian Isis and Osiris; classical divinities, with flaming swords and pale impassible faces, rigid as the Destiny whose type they were; ghastly Germanic demons and witches. — All the dread avengers that man, in the knowledge of his own wickedness, has ever shadowed for himself out of the darkness of his ignorant mind, swelled that ghastly crowd, until the artist’s brain reeled, and he was fain to sit with his head in his hands, trying, by a great effort of the will, to exorcise these loathsome phantoms.
“I must be going mad,” he muttered to himself. “I am going mad.”
But still the great question was unanswered — How was he to kill himself?
“I must settle that,” he thought. “I dare not think of anything that may come afterwards. Besides, what should come? I know that there is nothing. Haven’t I heard it demonstrated by cleverer men than I am? Haven’t I looked at it in every light, and weighed it in every scale — always with the same result? Yes; I know that there is nothing after the one short pang, any more than there is pain in the nerve of a tooth when the tooth is gone. The nerve was the soul of the tooth, I suppose; but wrench away the body, and the soul is dead. Why should I be afraid? One short pain — it will seem long, I dare say — and then I shall lie still for ever and ever, and melt slowly back into the elements out of which I was created. Yes; I shall lie still — and be nothing.”
Paul Marchmont sat thinking of this for a long time. Was it such a great advantage, after all, this annihilation, the sovereign good of the atheist’s barren creed? It seemed to-night to this man as if it would be better to be anything — to suffer any anguish, any penalty for his sins, than to be blotted out for ever and ever from any conscious part in the grand harmony of the universe. If he could have believed in that Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory, and that after cycles of years of suffering he might rise at last, purified from his sins, worthy to dwell among the angels, how differently would death have appeared to him! He might have gone away to hide himself in some foreign city, to perform patient daily sacrifices, humble acts of self-abnegation, every one of which should be a new figure, however small a one, to be set against the great sum of his sin.
But he could not believe. There is a vulgar proverb which says, “You cannot have your loaf and eat it;” or if proverbs would only be grammatical, it might be better worded, “You cannot eat your loaf, and have it to eat on some future occasion.” Neither can you indulge in rationalistic discussions or epigrammatic pleasantry about the Great Creator who made you, and then turn and cry aloud to Him in the dreadful hour of your despair: “O my God, whom I have insulted and offended, help the miserable wretch who for twenty years has obstinately shut his heart against Thee!” It may be that God would forgive and hear even at that last supreme moment, as He heard the penitent thief upon the cross; but the penitent thief had been a sinner, not an unbeliever, and he could pray. The hard heart of the atheist freezes in his breast when he would repent and put away his iniquities. When he would fain turn to his offended Maker, the words that he tries to speak die away upon his lips; for the habit of blasphemy is too strong upon him; he can blague upon all the mighty mysteries of heaven and hell, but he cannot pray.
Paul Marchmont could not fashion a prayer. Horrible witticisms arose up between him and the words he would have spoken — ghastly bon mots, that had seemed so brilliant at a lamp-lit dinner-table, spoken to a joyous accompaniment of champagne-corks and laughter. Ah, me! the world was behind this man now, with all its pleasures; and he looked back upon it, and thought that, even when it seemed gayest and brightest, it was only like a great roaring fair, with flaring lights, and noisy showmen clamoring for ever to a struggling crowd.
How should he die? Should he go upstairs and cut his throat?
He stood before one of his pictures — a pet picture; a girl’s face by Millais, looking through the moonlight, fantastically beautiful. He stood before this picture, and he felt one small separate pang amid all his misery as he remembered that Edward and Mary Arundel were now possessors of this particular gem.
“They sha’n’t have it,” he muttered to himself; “they sha’n’t have this, at any rate.”
He took a penknife from his pocket, and hacked and ripped the canvas savagely, till it hung in ribbons from the deep gilded frame.
Then he smiled to himself, for the first time since he had entered that house, and his eyes flashed with a sudden light.
“I have lived like Sardanapalus for the last year,” he cried aloud; “and I will die like Sardanapalus!”
There was a fragile piece of furniture near him — an étagère of marqueterie work, loaded with costly bric à brac, Oriental porcelain, Sèvres and Dresden, old Chelsea and crown Derby cups and saucers, and quaint teapots, crawling vermin in Pallissy ware, Indian monstrosities, and all manner of expensive absurdities, heaped together in artistic confusion. Paul Marchmont struck the slim leg of the étagère with his foot, and laughed aloud as the fragile toys fell into a ruined heap upon the carpet. He stamped upon the broken china; and the frail cups and saucers crackled like eggshells under his savage feet.
“I will die like Sardanapalus!” he cried; “the King Arbaces shall never rest in the palace I have beautified.
‘Now order here
Fagots, pine-nuts, and wither’d leaves, and such
Things as catch fire with one sole spark;
Bring cedar, too, and precious drugs, and spices,
And mighty planks, to nourish a tall pile;
Bring frankincense and myrrh, too; for it is
For a great sacrifice I build the pyre.’
I don’t think much of your blank verse, George Gordon Noel Byron. Your lines end on lame syllables; your ten-syllable blank verse lacks the fiery ring of your rhymes. I wonder whether Marchmont Towers is insured? Yes, I remember paying a premium last Christmas. They may have a sharp tussle with the insurance companies though. Yes, I will die like Sardanapalus — no, not like him, for I have no Myrrha to mount the pile and cling about me to the last. Pshaw! a modern Myrrha would leave Sardanapalus to perish alone, and be off to make herself safe with the new king.”
Paul snatched up the candle, and went out into the hall. He laughed discordantly, and spoke in loud ringing tones. His manner had that feverish excitement which the French call exaltation. He ran up the broad stairs leading to the long corridor, out of which his own rooms, and his mother’s and sister’s rooms, opened.
Ah, how pretty they were! How elegant he had made them in his reckless disregard of expense, his artistic delight in the task of beautification! There were no shutters here, and the summer breeze blew in through the broken windows, and stirred the gauzy muslin curtains, the gay chintz draperies, the cloudlike festoons of silk and lace. Paul Marchmont went from room to room with the flaring candle in his hand; and wherever there were curtains or draperies about the windows, the beds, the dressing-tables, the low lounging-chairs, and cosy little sofas, he set alight to them. He did this with wonderful rapidity, leaving flames behind him as he traversed the long corridor, and coming back thus to the stairs. He went downstairs again, and returned to the western drawing-room. Then he blew out his candle, turned out the gas, and waited.
“How soon will it come?” he thought.
The shutters were shut, and the room was quite dark.
“Shall I ever have courage to stop till it comes?”
Paul Marchmont groped his way to the door, double-locked it, and then took the key from the lock.
He went to one of the windows, clambered upon a chair, opened the top shutter, and flung the key out through the broken window. He heard it strike jingling upon the stone terrace and then bound away, Heaven knows where.
“I shan’t be able to go out by the door, at any rate,” he thought.
It was quite dark in the room, but the reflection of the spreading flames was growing crimson in the sky outside. Mr. Marchmont went away from the window, feeling his way amongst the chairs and tables. He could see the red light through the crevices of the shutters, and a lurid patch of sky through that one window, the upper half of which he had left open. He sat down, somewhere near the centre of the room, and waited.
“The smoke will kill me,” he thought. “I shall know nothing of the fire.”
He sat quite still. He had trembled violently while he had gone from room to room doing his horrible work; but his nerves seemed steadier now. Steadier! why, he was transformed to stone! His heart seemed to have stopped beating; and he only knew by a sick anguish, a dull aching pain, that it was still in his breast.
He sat waiting and thinking. In that time all the long story of the past was acted before him, and he saw what a wretch he had been. I do not know whether this was penitence; but looking at that enacted story, Paul Marchmont thought that his own part in the play was a mistake, and that it was a foolish thing to be a villain.
When a great flock of frightened people, with a fire-engine out of order, and drawn by whooping men and boys, came hurrying up to the Towers, they found a blazing edifice, which looked like an enchanted castle — great stone-framed windows vomiting flame; tall chimneys toppling down upon a fiery roof; molten lead, like water turned to fire, streaming in flaming cataracts upon the terrace; and all the sky lit up by that vast pile of blazing ruin. Only salamanders, or poor Mr. Braidwood’s own chosen band, could have approached Marchmont Towers that night. The Kemberling firemen and the Swampington firemen, who came by-and-by, were neither salamanders nor Braidwoods. They stood aloof and squirted water at the flames, and recoiled aghast by-and-by when the roof came down like an avalanche of blazing timber, leaving only a gaunt gigantic skeleton of red-hot stone where Marchmont Towers once had been.
When it was safe to venture in amongst the ruins — and this was not for many hours after the fire had burnt itself out — people looked for Paul Marchmont; but amidst all that vast chaos of smouldering ashes, there was nothing found that could be identified as the remains of a human being. No one knew where the artist had been at the time of the fire, or indeed whether he had been in the house at all; and the popular opinion was, that Paul had set fire to the mansion, and had fled away before the flames began to spread.
But Lavinia Weston knew better than this. She knew now why her brother had sent her every scrap of valuable property belonging to him. She understood now why he had come back to her to bid her good-night for the second time, and press his cold lips to hers.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05