Victor Carrington was very well content with the state of affairs at Hilton House in all but one respect. The fulfilment of his purpose was not approaching with sufficient rapidity. The rich marriage which he had talked about for Reginald was a pure figment; the virtuous ironmonger, with the richly dowered daughter, existed only in his prolific brain — the need of money was growing pressing. He had done much, but there was still much to do, and he must make haste to do it. He had also been mistaken on one point of much importance to his success; he had not calculated on the strength of Douglas Dale’s constitution. Each day that he dined with Paulina — and the days on which he did not were exceedingly few — Dale drank a small quantity of curaçoa, into which Carrington had poured poison of a slow but sure nature. As the small carafon in which the liquor was placed upon the table was emptied, the poisoner never found any difficulty in gaining access to the fresh supply.
The antique liquor-chest, with its fittings of Venetian glass was always kept on the side-board in the dining-room, and was never locked. Paulina had a habit of losing anything that came into her hands, and the key of the liquor-chest had long been missing.
But the time was passing, and the poison was not telling, as far as he, the poisoner, could judge from appearances, on Douglas Dale. He never complained of illness, and beyond a slight lassitude, he did not seem to have anything the matter with him. This would not do. It behoved Carrington to expedite matters. His project was to accomplish the death of Douglas Dale by poison, throwing the burthen of suspicion — should suspicion arise — upon Paulina. To advance this purpose, he had industriously circulated reports of the most injurious character respecting her; so that Douglas Dale, if he had not been blinded and engrossed by his love, must have seen that he was regarded by the men whom he was in the habit of meeting even more coldly and curiously than when he had first boldly announced his engagement to Madame Durski. He made it known that Douglas Dale had made a will, by which the whole of his disposable property was bequeathed to Paulina, and circulated a rumour that the Austrian widow was utterly averse to the intended marriage, in feeling, and was only contracting it from interested motives.
“If Dale was only out of the way, and his heir had come into the money, she would rather have Reginald,” was a spiteful saying current among those who knew the lady and her suitor, and which had its unsuspected origin with Carrington. Supposing Dale to come to his death by poison, and that fact to be ascertained, who would be suspected but the woman who had everything to gain by his death, whose acknowledged lover was his next heir, and who succeeded by his will to all the property which did not go immediately into the possession of that acknowledged lover? The plan was admirably laid, and there was no apparent hitch in it, and it only remained now for Carrington to accelerate his proceedings. He still maintained reserve with Reginald Eversleigh, who would go to his house, and lounge purposelessly about, sullen and gloomy, but afraid to question the master-mind which had so completely subjugated his weak and craven nature.
The engagement between Paulina and Douglas had lasted nearly two months, when a cloud overshadowed the horizon which had seemed so bright.
Madame Durski became somewhat alarmed by a change in her lover’s appearance, which struck her suddenly on one of his visits to the villa. For some weeks past she had seen him only by lamplight — that light which gives a delusive brightness to the countenance.
To-day she saw him with the cold northern sunlight shining full upon his face; and for the first time she perceived that he had altered much of late.
“Douglas,” she said, earnestly, “how ill you are looking!”
“Yes; I see it to-day for the first time, and I can only wonder that I never noticed it before. You have grown so much paler, so much thinner, within the last few weeks. I am sure you cannot be well.”
“My dearest Paulina, pray do not look at me with such alarm,” said Douglas, gently. “Believe me, there is nothing particular the matter. I have not been quite myself for the last few weeks, I admit — a touch of low fever, I think; but there is not the slightest occasion for fear on your part.”
“Oh, Douglas,” exclaimed Paulina, “how can you speak so carelessly of a subject so vital to me? I implore you to consult a physician immediately.”
“I assure you, my dearest, it is not necessary. There is nothing really the matter.”
“Douglas, I beg and entreat you to see a physician directly. I entreat it as a favour to me.”
“My dear Paulina, I am ready to do anything you wish.”
“You will promise me, then, to see a doctor you can trust, without an hour’s unnecessary delay?”
“I promise, with all my heart,” replied Douglas. “Ah, Paulina, what happiness to think that my life is of some slight value to her I love so fondly!”
No more was said upon the subject; but during dinner, and throughout the evening, Paulina’s eyes fixed themselves every now and then with an anxious, scrutinizing gaze upon her lover’s face.
When he had left her, she mentioned her fears to her confidante and shadow, Miss Brewer.
“Do you not see a change in Mr. Dale?” she asked.
“A change! What kind of change?”
“Do you not perceive an alteration in his appearance? In plainer words, do you not think him looking very ill?”
Miss Brewer, generally so impassive, started, and looked at her patroness with a gaze in which alarm was plainly visible.
She had hazarded so much in order to bring about a marriage between Douglas and her patroness; and what if mortality’s dread enemy, Death, should forbid the banns?
“Ill!” she exclaimed; “do you think Mr. Dale is ill?”
“I do, indeed; and he confesses as much himself, though he makes light of the matter. He talks of low fever. I cannot tell you how much he has alarmed me.”
“There may be nothing serious in it,” answered Miss Brewer, with some hesitation. “One is so apt to take alarm about trifles which a doctor would laugh at. I dare say Mr. Dale only requires change of air. A London life is not calculated to improve any one’s health.”
“Perhaps that is the cause of his altered appearance,” replied Paulina, only too glad to be reassured as to her lover’s safety. “I will beg him to take change of air. But he has promised to see a doctor to-morrow: when he comes to me in the afternoon I shall hear what the doctor has said.”
Douglas Dale was very much inclined to make light of the slight symptoms of ill-health which had oppressed him for some time — a languor, a sense of thirst and fever, which were very wearing in their effect, but which he attributed to the alternations of excitement and agitation that he had undergone of late.
He was, however, too much a man of honour to break the promise made to Paulina.
He went early on the following morning to Savile Row, where he called upon Dr. Harley Westbrook, a physician of some eminence, to whom he carefully described the symptoms of which he had complained to Paulina.
“I do not consider myself really ill,” he said, in conclusion; “but I have come to you in obedience to the wish of a friend.”
“I am very glad that you have come to me,” answered Dr. Westbrook, gravely.
“Indeed! do you, then, consider the symptoms alarming?”
“Well, no, not at present; but I may go so far as to say that you have done very wisely in placing yourself under medical treatment. It is a most interesting case,” added the doctor with an air of satisfaction that was almost enjoyment.
He then asked his patient a great many questions, some of which Douglas Dale considered frivolous, or, indeed, absurd; questions about his diet, his habits: questions even about the people with whom he associated, the servants who waited upon him.
These latter inquiries might have seemed almost impertinent, if Dr. Westbrook’s elevated position had not precluded such an idea.
“You dine at your club, or in your chambers, eh, Mr. Dale?” he asked.
“Neither at my club, nor my chambers; I dine every day with a friend.”
“Indeed; always with the same friend?”
“Always the same.”
“And you breakfast?”
“At my chambers.”
Here followed several questions as to the nature of the breakfast.
“These sort of ailments depend so much on diet,” said the physician, as if to justify the closeness of his questioning. “Your servant prepares your breakfast, of course — is he a person whom you can trust?”
“Yes; he is an old servant of my father’s. I could trust him implicitly in far more important matters than the preparation of my breakfast.”
“Indeed! Will you pardon me if I ask rather a strange question?”
“Certainly, if it is a necessary one.”
“Answered like a lawyer, Mr. Dale,” replied Dr. Westbrook, with a smile. “I want to know whether this old and trusted servant of yours has any beneficial interest in your death?”
“Interest in my death —”
“In plainer words, has he reason to think that you have put him down in your will — supposing that you have made a will; which is far from probable?”
“Well, yes,” replied Douglas, thoughtfully; “I have made a will within the last few months, and Jarvis, my old servant knows that he is provided for, in the event of surviving me — not a very likely event, according to the ordinary hazards; but a man is bound to prepare for every contingency.”
“You told your servant that you had provided for him?”
“I did. He has been such an excellent creature, that it was only natural I should leave him comfortably situated in the event of my death.”
“No; to be sure,” answered the physician, with rather an absent manner. “And now I need trouble you with no further questions this morning. Come to me in a few days, and in the meantime take the medicine I prescribe for you.”
Dr. Westbrook wrote a prescription, and Mr. Dale departed, very much perplexed by his interview with the celebrated physician.
Douglas went to Fulham that evening as usual, and the first question Paulina asked related to his interview with the doctor.
“You have seen a medical man?” she asked.
“I have; and you may set your mind at rest, dearest. He assures me that there is nothing serious the matter.”
Paulina was entirely reassured, and throughout that evening she was brighter and happier than usual in the society of her lover — more lovely, more bewitching than ever, as it seemed to Douglas.
He waited a week before calling again on the physician; and he might, perhaps, have delayed his visit even longer, had he not felt that the fever and languor from which he suffered increased rather than abated.
This time Dr. Westbrook’s manner seemed graver and more perplexed than on the former visit. He asked even more questions, and at last, after a thoughtful examination of the patient, he said, very seriously —
“Mr. Dale, I must tell you frankly that I do not like your symptoms.”
“You consider them alarming?”
“I consider them perplexing, rather than alarming. And as you are not a nervous subject I think I may venture to trust you fully.”
“You may trust in the strength of my nerve, if that is what you mean.”
“I believe I may, and I shall have to test your moral courage and general force of character.”
“Pray be brief, then,” said Douglas with a faint smile. “I can almost guess what you have to say. You are going to tell me that I carry the seeds of a mortal disease; that the shadowy hand of death already holds me in its fatal grip.”
“I am going to tell you nothing of the kind,” answered Dr. Westbrook. “I can find no symptoms of disease. You have a very fair lease of life, Mr. Dale, and may enjoy a green old age, if other people would allow you to enjoy it.”
“How do you mean?”
“I mean that if I can trust my own judgment in a matter which is sometimes almost beyond the reach of science, the symptoms from which you suffer are those of slow poisoning.”
“Slow poisoning!” replied Douglas, in almost inaudible accents. “It is impossible!” he exclaimed, after a pause, during which the physician waited quietly until his patient should have in some manner recovered his calmness of mind. “It is quite impossible. I have every confidence in your skill, your science; but in this instance, Dr. Westbrook, I feel assured that you are mistaken.”
“I would gladly think so, Mr. Dale,” replied the doctor, gravely; “but I cannot. I have given my best thought to your case. I can only form one conclusion — namely, that you are labouring under the effects of poison.”
“Do you know what the poison is?”
“I do not; but I do know that it must have been administered with a caution that is almost diabolical in its ingenuity — so slowly, by such imperceptible degrees, that you have scarcely been aware of the change which it has worked in your system. It was a most providential circumstance that you came to me when you did, as I have been able to discover the treachery to which you are subject while there is yet ample time for you to act against it. Forewarned is forearmed, you know, Mr. Dale. The hidden hand of the secret poisoner is about its fatal work; it is for you and me to discover to whom the hand belongs. Is there any one about you whom you can suspect of such hideous guilt?”
“No one — no one. I repeat that such a thing is impossible.”
“Who is the person most interested in your death?” asked Dr. Westbrook, calmly.
“My first cousin, Sir Reginald Eversleigh, who would succeed to a very handsome income in that event. But I have not met him, or, at any rate, broke bread with him, for the last two months. Nor can I for a moment believe him capable of such infamy.”
“If you have not been in intimate association with him for the last two months, you may absolve him from all suspicion,” answered Dr. Westbrook. “You spoke to me the other day of dining very frequently with one particular friend; forgive me if I ask an unpleasant question. Is that friend a person whom you can trust?”
“That friend I could trust with a hundred lives, if I had them to lose,” Douglas replied, warmly.
The doctor looked at his patient thoughtfully. He was a man of the world, and the warmth of Mr. Dale’s manner told him that the friend in question was a woman.
“Has the person whom you trust so implicitly any beneficial interest in your death?” he asked.
“To some amount; but that person would gain much more by my continuing to live.”
“Indeed; then we must needs fall back upon my original idea and painful as it may be to you, the old servant must become the object of your suspicion.”
“I cannot believe him capable —”
“Come, come, Mr. Dale,” interrupted the physician. “We must look at things as men of the world. It is your duty to ascertain by whom this poison has been administered, in order to protect yourself from the attacks of your insidious destroyer. If you will follow my advice, you will do this; if, on the other hand, you elect to shut your eyes to the danger that assails you, I can only tell you that you will most assuredly pay for your folly by the forfeit of your life.”
“What am I to do?” asked Douglas.
“You say that your habits of life are almost rigid in their regularity. You always breakfast in your own chambers; you always dine and take your after-dinner coffee in the house of one particular friend. With the exception of a biscuit and a glass of sherry taken sometimes at your club, these two meals are all you take during the day. It is, therefore, an indisputable fact, that poison has bee a administered at one or other of these two meals. Your old butler serves one — the servants of your friend prepare the other. Either in your own chambers, or in your friend’s house, you have a hidden foe. It is for you to find out where that foe lurks.”
“Not in her house,” gasped Douglas, unconsciously betraying the depth of his feeling and the sex of his friend; “not in hers. It must be Jarvis whom I have to fear — and yet, no, I cannot believe it. My father’s old servant — a man who used to carry me in his arms when I was a boy!”
“You may easily set the question of his guilt or innocence at rest, Mr. Dale,” answered Dr. Westbrook. “Contrive to separate yourself from him for a time. If during that time you find your symptoms cease, you will have the strongest evidence of his guilt; if they still continue, you must look elsewhere.”
“I will take your advice,” replied Douglas, with a weary sigh; “anything is better than suspense.”
Little more was said.
As Douglas walked slowly from the physician’s house to the Phoenix Club, he meditated profoundly on the subject of his interview with Dr. Westbrook.
“Who is the traitor?” he asked himself. “Who? Unhappily there can be no doubt about it. Jarvis is the guilty wretch.”
It was with unspeakable pain that Douglas Dale contemplated the idea of his old servant’s guilt: his old servant, who had seemed a model of fidelity and devotion!
This very man had attended the deathbed of the rector — Douglas Dale’s father — had been recommended by that father to the care of his two sons, had exhibited every appearance of intense grief at the loss of his master.
What could he think, except that Jarvis was guilty? There was but one other direction in which he could look for guilt, and there surely it could not be found.
Who in Hilton House had any interest in his death, except that one person who was above the possibility of suspicion?
He sat by his solitary breakfast-table on the morning after his interview with the physician, and watched Jarvis as he moved to and fro, waiting on his master with what seemed affectionate attention.
Douglas ate little. A failing appetite had been one of the symptoms that accompanied the low fever from which he had lately suffered.
This morning, depression of spirits rendered him still less inclined to eat.
He was thinking of Jarvis and of the past — those careless, happy, childish days, in which this man had been second only to his own kindred in his boyish affection.
While he meditated gravely upon this most painful subject, deliberating as to the manner in which he should commence a conversation that was likely to be a very serious one, he happened to look up, and perceived that he was watched by the man he had been lately watching. His eyes met the gaze of his old servant, and he beheld a strange earnestness in that gaze.
The old man did not flinch on meeting his master’s glance.
“I beg your pardon for looking at you so hard, Mr. Douglas,” he said; “but I was thinking about you very serious, sir, when you looked up.”
“Indeed, Jarvis, and why?”
“Why you see, sir, it was about your appetite as I was thinking. It’s fallen off dreadful within the last few weeks. The poor breakfastes as you eats is enough to break a man’s heart. And you don’t know the pains as I take, sir, to tempt you in the way of breakfastes. That fish, sir, I fetched from Grove’s this morning with my own hands. They comes up in a salt-water tank in the bottom of their own boat, sir, as lively as if they was still in their natural eleming, Grove’s fish do. But they might be red herrings for any notice as you take of ’em. You’re not yourself, Mr. Douglas, that’s what it is. You’re ill, Mr. Douglas, and you ought to see a doctor. Excuse my presumption, sir, in making these remarks; but if an old family servant that has nursed you on his knees can’t speak free, who can?”
“True,” Douglas answered with a sigh; “I was a very small boy when you carried me on your shoulders to many a country fair, and you were very good to me, Jarvis.”
“Only my dooty, sir,” muttered the old man.
“You are right, Jarvis, as to my health — I am ill.”
“Then you’ll send for a doctor, surely, Mr. Douglas.”
“I have already seen a doctor.”
“And what do he say, sir?”
“He says my case is very serious.”
“Oh, Mr. Douglas, don’t ‘ee say that, don’t ‘ee say that,” cried the old man, in extreme distress.
“I can only tell you the truth, Jarvis,” answered Douglas: “but there is no occasion for despair. The physician tells me that my case is a grave one, but he does not say that it is hopeless.”
“Why don’t ‘ee consult another doctor, Mr. Douglas,” said Jarvis; “perhaps that one ain’t up to his work. If it’s such a difficult case, you ought to go to all the best doctors in London, till you find the one that can cure you. A fine, well-grown young gentleman like you oughtn’t to have much the matter with him. I don’t see as it can be very serious.”
“I don’t know about that, Jarvis; but in any case I have resolved upon doing something for you.”
“For me, sir! Lor’ bless your generous heart, I don’t want nothing in this mortal world.”
“But you may, Jarvis,” replied Douglas. “You have already been told that I have provided for you in case of my death.”
“Yes, sir, you was so good as to say you had left me an annuity, and it was very kind of you to think of such a thing, and I’m duly thankful. But still you see, sir, I can’t help looking at it in the light of a kind of joke, sir; for it ain’t in human nature that an old chap like me is going to outlive a young gentleman like you; and Lord forbid that it should be in human nature for such a thing to happen.”
“We never know what may happen, Jarvis. At any rate, I have provided against the worst. But as you are getting old, and have worked hard all your life, I think you must want rest; so, instead of putting you off till my death, I shall give you your annuity at once, and you may retire into a comfortable little house of your own, and live the life of an elderly gentleman, with a decent little income, as soon as you please.”
To the surprise of Douglas Dale, the old man’s countenance expressed only grief and mortification on hearing an announcement which his master had supposed would have been delightful to him.
“Begging your pardon, sir,” he faltered; “but have you seen a younger servant as you like better and as could serve you better, than poor old Jarvis?”
“No, indeed,” answered Douglas, “I have seen no such person. Nor do I believe that any one in the world could serve me as well as you.”
“Then why do you want to change, sir?”
“I don’t want to change. I only want to make you happy, Jarvis.”
“Then make me happy by letting me stay with you,” pleaded the old servant. “Let me stay, sir. Don’t talk about annuities. I want nothing from you but the pleasure of waiting on my dear old master’s son. It’s as much delight to me to wait upon you now as it was to me twenty years ago to carry you to the country fairs on my shoulder. Ah, we did have rare times of it then, didn’t we, sir? Let me stay, and when I die give me a grave somewhere hard by where you live; and if, once in a way, when you pass the churchyard where I lay, you should give a sigh, and say, ‘Poor old Jarvis!’ that will be a full reward to me for having loved you so dear ever since you was a baby.”
Was this acting? Was this the perfect simulation of an accomplished hypocrite? No, no, no; Douglas Dale could not believe it.
The tears came into his eyes; he extended his hand, and grasped that of his old servant.
“You shall stay with me, Jarvis,” he said; “and I will trust you with all my heart.”
Douglas Dale left his chambers soon after that conversation, and went straight to Dr. Westbrook, to whom he gave a fall account of the interview.
“I have tested the old man thoroughly,” he said, in conclusion; “and I believe him to be fidelity itself.”
“You have tested him, Mr. Dale! stuff and nonsense!” exclaimed the practical physician. “You surely don’t call that sentimental conversation a test? If the man is capable of being a slow poisoner, he is, of course, capable of acting a part, and shedding crocodile’s tears in evidence of his devoted affection for the master whose biliary organs he is deranging by the administration of antimony, or aconite. If you want to test the man thoroughly, test him in my way. Contrive to eat your breakfast elsewhere for a week or two; touch nothing, not so much as a glass of water, in your own chambers; and if at the end of that time the symptoms have ceased, you will know what to think of that pattern of fidelity — Mr. Jarvis.”
Douglas promised to take the doctor’s advice. He was convinced of his servant’s innocence; but he wanted to put that question beyond doubt.
But if Jarvis was indeed innocent, where was the guilty wretch to be found?
Douglas Dale dined at Hilton House upon the evening after his interview with Dr. Westbrook, as he had done without intermission for several weeks. He found Paulina tender and affectionate, as she had ever been of late, since respect and esteem for her lover’s goodness had developed into a warmer feeling.
“Douglas,” she said, on this particular evening, when they were alone together for a few minutes after dinner, “your health has not improved as much as I had hoped it would under the treatment of your doctor. I wish you would consult some one else.”
She spoke lightly, for she feared to alarm the patient by any appearance of fear on her part. She knew how physical disease may be augmented by mental agitation. Her tone, therefore, was one of assumed carelessness.
To-night Douglas Dale’s mind was peculiarly sensitive to every impression. Something in that assumed tone struck strangely upon his ear. For the first time since he had known her, the voice of the woman he loved, seemed to him to have a false sound in its clear, ringing tones.
An icy terror suddenly took possession of his mind.
What if this woman — this woman, whom he loved with such intense affection — what if she were something other than she seemed! What if her heart had never been his — her love never withdrawn from the reprobate upon whom she had once bestowed it! What if her tender glances, her affectionate words, her graceful, caressing manner, were all a comedy, of which he was the dupe! What if —
“I am the victim of treachery,” he thought to himself; “but the traitor cannot be here. Oh, no, no! let me find the traitor anywhere rather than here.”
Paulina watched her lover as he sat with his eyes fixed on the ground, absorbed in gloomy meditation.
Presently he looked up suddenly, and addressed her.
“I am going on a journey, Paulina, on business,” he said; “business, which I can only transact myself. I shall, therefore, be compelled to be absent from you for a week; it may be even more. Perhaps we shall never meet again. Will that be very distressing to you?”
“Douglas,” exclaimed Paulina, “how strangely you speak to me to-night! If this is a jest, it is a very cruel one.”
“It is no jest, Paulina,” answered her lover. “Life is very precarious, and within the last week I have learnt to consider my existence in imminent peril.”
“You are ill, Douglas,” said Paulina; “and illness has unnerved you. Pray do not give way to these depressing thoughts. Consult some other physician than the man who is now your adviser.”
“Yes, yes; I will do so,” answered Douglas, with, a sudden change of tone; “you are right, Paulina. I will not be so weak as to become the prey of these distressing fancies, these dark forebodings. What have I to fear? Death is no terrible evil. It is but the common fate of all. I can face that common doom as calmly as a Christian should face it. But deceit, treachery, falsehood from those we love — those are evils far more terrible than death. Oh, Paulina! tell me that I have no need to fear those?”
“From whom should you fear them, Douglas!”
“Aye, from whom, that is the question! Not from you, Paulina?”
“From me!” she echoed, with a look of wonder. “Are you mad?”
“Swear — swear to me that there is no falsehood in your heart, Paulina; that you love me as truly as you have taught me to believe; that you have not beguiled me with false words, as false as they are sweet!” cried the young man, in wild excitement.
“My dear Douglas, this is madness!” exclaimed Madame Durski; “folly too wild for reproof. This passionate excitement must be surely the effect of fever. What can I say to you except that I love you truly and dearly; that my heart has been purified, my mind elevated by your influence; that I have now no thought which is not known to you — no hope that does not rest itself upon your love. You ought to believe this, Douglas, for my every word, my every look, should speak the truth, which I do not care to reiterate in protestations such as these. It is too painful to me to be doubted by you.”
“And if I have wronged you, I am a base wretch,” said Douglas, in a low voice.
Early the following morning he paid another visit to Dr. Westbrook.
“I will not trespass on your time this morning,” he said, after shaking hands with the physician. “I have only come here in order to ask one question. If the poison were discontinued for a week, would there be any cessation of the symptoms?”
“There would,” replied the doctor. “Nature is quick to reassert herself. But if you are about to test your butler, I should recommend you to remain away longer than a week — say a fortnight.”
But it was not to test his old servant that Douglas Dale absented himself from London, though he had allowed the physician to believe that such was his intention. He started for Paris that night; but he took Jarvis with him.
His health improved day by day, hour by hour, from the day of his parting from Paulina Durski. The low fever had left him before he had been ten days in Paris; the perpetual thirst, the wearisome debility, left him also. He began to be his old self again; and to him this recovery was far more terrible than the worst possible symptoms of disease could have been, for it told him that the hidden foe who had robbed him of health and strength, was to be found at Hilton House.
In that house there was but one person who would profit by Douglas Dale’s death, and she would profit largely.
“She has never loved me,” he thought to himself. “She still loves Reginald Eversleigh. My death will give her both fortune and liberty; it will leave her free to wed the man she really loves.”
He no longer trusted his own love. He believed that he had been made the dupe of a woman’s treachery; and that the hand which had so often been pressed passionately to his lips, was the hand which, day by day, had mingled poison with his cup, sapping his life by slow degrees. Against the worldly wisdom of his friends he had opposed the blind instinct of his love; and now that events conspired to condemn this woman, he wondered that he could ever have trusted her.
At the end of a fortnight Douglas Dale returned from Paris, and went immediately to Paulina. He believed that he had been the dupe of an accomplished actress — the vilest and most heartless of women — and he was now acting a part, in order to fathom the depth of her iniquity.
“Let me know her — let me know her in all her baseness,” he said to himself. “Let me tax the murderess with her crime! and then, surely, this mad love will be plucked for ever from my heart, and I shall find peace far from the false syren whose sorcery has embittered my life.”
Douglas had received several letters from Paulina during his visit to Paris — letters breathing the most devoted and disinterested love; but to him every word seemed studied, every expression false. Those very letters would, a few short weeks ago, have seemed to Douglas the perfection of truth and artlessness.
He returned to England wondrously restored to health. Jarvis had been his constant attendant in Paris, and had brought him every morning a cup of coffee made by his own hands.
At the Temple, he found a note from Paulina, telling him that he was expected hourly at Hilton House.
He lost no time in presenting himself. He endeavoured to stifle all emotion — to conquer the impatience that possessed him; but he could not.
Madame Durski was seated by one of the windows in the drawing-room when Mr. Dale was announced.
She received her lover with every appearance of affection, and with an emotion which she seemed only anxious to conceal.
But to the jaundiced mind of Douglas Dale this suppressed emotion appeared only a superior piece of acting; and yet, as he looked at his betrothed, while she stood before him, perfect, peerless, in her refined loveliness, his heart was divided by love and hate. He hated the guilt which he believed was hers. He loved her even yet, despite that guilt.
“You are very pale, Douglas,” she said after the first greetings were over. “But, thank heaven, there is a wonderful improvement. I can see restored health in your face. The fever has gone — the unnatural brightness has left your eyes. Oh, dearest, how happy it makes me to see this change! You can never know what I suffered when I saw you drooping, day by day.”
“Yes, day by day, Paulina,” answered the young man, gravely. “It was a gradual decay of health and strength — my life ebbing slowly — almost imperceptibly — but not the less surely.”
“And you are better, Douglas? You feel and know yourself that there is a change?”
“Yes, Paulina. My recovery began in the hour in which I left London. My health has improved from that time.”
“You required change of air, no doubt. How foolish your doctor must have been not to recommend that in the first instance! And now that you have returned, may I hope to see you as often as of old? Shall we renew all our old habits, and go back to our delightful evenings?”
“Were those evenings really pleasant to you, Paulina?” asked Mr. Dale, earnestly.
“Ah, Douglas, you must know they were!”
“I cannot know the secrets of your heart, Paulina,” he replied, with unspeakable sadness in his tone. “You have seemed to me all that is bright, and pure, and true. But how do I know that it is not all seeming? How do I know that Reginald Eversleigh’s image may not still hold a place in your heart?”
“You insult me, Douglas!” exclaimed Madame Durski, with dignity. “But I will not suffer myself to be angry with you on the day of your return. I see your health is not entirely restored, since you still harbour these gloomy thoughts and unjust suspicions.”
His most searching scrutiny could perceive no traces of guilt in the lovely face he looked at so anxiously. For a while his suspicions were almost lulled to rest. That soft white hand, which glittered with gems that had been his gift, could not be the hand of an assassin.
He began to feel the soothing influence of hope. Night and day he prayed that he might discover the innocence of her he so fondly loved. But just as he had begun to abandon himself to that sweet influence, despair again took possession of him. All the old symptoms — the fever, the weakness, the unnatural thirst, the dry, burning sensation in his throat — returned; and this time Jarvis was far away. His master had sent him to pay a visit to a married daughter, comfortably settled in the depths of Devonshire.
Douglas Dale went to one of the most distinguished physicians in London. He was determined to consult a new adviser, in order to discover whether the opinion of that other adviser would agree with the opinion of Dr. Harley Westbrook.
Dr. Chippendale, the new physician, asked all the questions previously asked by Dr. Westbrook, and, after much deliberation, he informed his patient, with all proper delicacy and caution, that he was suffering from the influence of slow poison.
“Is my life in danger, Dr. Chippendale?” he asked.
“Not in immediate danger. The poison has evidently been administered in infinitesimal doses. But you cannot too soon withdraw yourself from all those who now surround you. Life is not to be tampered with. The poisoner may take it into his head to increase the doses.”
Douglas Dale left his adviser after a long conversation. He then went to take his farewell of Paulina Durski.
There was no longer the shadow of doubt in his mind. The horrible certainty seemed painfully clear to him. Love must be plucked for ever from his breast, and only contempt and loathing must remain where that divine sentiment had been enthroned.
Since his interview with the physician, he had carefully recalled to memory all the details of his life in Paulina’s society.
She had given him day by day an allotted portion of poison.
How had she administered it?
This was the question which he now sought to solve, for he no longer asked himself whether she was guilty or innocent. He remembered that every evening after dinner he had, in Continental fashion, taken a single glass of liqueur; and this he had received from Paulina’s own hand. It had pleased him to take the tiny, fragile glass from those taper fingers. The delicate liqueur had seemed sweeter to him because it was given by Paulina.
He now felt convinced that it was in this glass of liqueur the poison had been administered to him.
On more than one occasion he had at first declined taking it; but Paulina had always persuaded him, with some pretty speech, some half coquettish, half caressing action.
He found her waiting him as usual: her toilet perfection itself; her beauty enhanced by the care with which she always strove to render herself charming in his eyes. She said playfully that it was a tribute which she offered to her benefactor.
They dined together, with Miss Brewer for their sole companion. She seemed self-contained and emotionless as ever; but if Douglas had not been so entirely absorbed by his thoughts of Paulina, he might have perceived that she looked at him ever and anon with furtive, but searching glances.
There was little conversation, little gaiety at that dinner. Douglas was absent-minded and gloomy. He scarcely ate anything; but the constant thirst from which he suffered obliged him to drink long draughts of water.
After dinner, Miss Brewer brought the glasses and the liqueur to Madame Durski, after her customary manner.
Paulina filled the ruby-stemmed glass with curaçoa, and handed it to her lover.
“No, Paulina, I shall take no liqueur to-night.”
“Why not, Douglas?”
“I am not well,” he replied, “and I am growing rather tired of curaçoa.”
“As you please,” said Paulina, as she replaced the delicate glass in the stand from which she had just taken it.
Miss Brewer had left the room, and the lovers were alone together. They were seated face to face at the prettily decorated table — one with utter despair in his heart.
“Shall I tell you why I would not take that glass from your hands just now, Paulina Durski?” asked Douglas, after a brief pause, rising to leave the table as he spoke. “Or will you spare me the anguish of speaking words that must cover you with shame?”
“I do not understand you,” murmured Paulina, looking at her lover with a gaze of mingled terror and bewilderment.
“Oh, Paulina!” cried Douglas; “why still endeavour to sustain a deception which I have unmasked? I know all.”
“All what?” gasped the bewildered woman.
“All your guilt — all your baseness. Oh, Paulina, confess the treachery which would have robbed me of life; and which, failing that, has for ever destroyed my peace. If you are human, let some word of remorse, some tardy expression of regret, attest your womanhood.”
“I can only think that he is mad,” murmured Paulina to herself, as she gazed on her accuser with wondering eyes.
“Paulina, at least do not pretend to misunderstand me.”
“Your words,” replied Madame Durski, “seem to me the utterances of a madman. For pity’s sake, calm yourself, and speak plainly.”
“I think that I have spoken, very plainly.”
“I can discover no meaning in your words. What is it you would have me regret? Of what crime do you accuse me?”
“The worst and darkest of all crimes,” replied Douglas; “the crime of murder.”
“Yes; the crime of the secret poisoner!”
“Douglas!” cried Paulina, with a stifled shriek of terror; and then, recoiling from him suddenly, she fell half fainting into a chair. “Oh, why do I try to reason with him?” she murmured, piteously; “he is mad — he is mad! My poor Douglas!” continued Paulina, sobbing hysterically, “you are mad yourself, and you will drive me mad. Do not speak to me. Leave me to myself. You have terrified me by your wild denunciations. Leave me, Douglas: for pity’s sake, leave me.”
“I will leave you, Paulina,” answered her lover, in a grave, sad voice; “and our parting will be for ever. You cannot deny your guilt, and you can no longer deceive me.”
“Do as you please,” replied Madame Durski, her passionate indignation changing suddenly to an icy calmness. “You have wronged me so deeply, you have insulted me so shamefully, that it matters little what further wrong or insult I suffer at your hands. In my own justification, I will say but this — I am as incapable of the guilt you talk of as I am of understanding how such a wild and groundless accusation can come from you, Douglas Dale, my affianced husband — the man I have loved and trusted, the man whom I have believed the very model of honour and generosity. But this must be madness, and I am not bound to endure the ravings of a lunatic. You have said our farewell was to be spoken to~night. Let it be so. I could not endure a repetition of the scene with which you have just favoured me. I regret most deeply that your generosity has burthened me with, pecuniary obligations which I may never be able to repay, and has, in some measure, deprived me of independence. But even at the hazard of being considered ungrateful, I must tell you that I trust we may meet no more.”
No one can tell the anguish which Paulina Durski endured as she uttered these words in cold, measured accents. It was the supreme effort of a proud, but generous-minded woman, and there was a kind of heroism in that subjugation of a stricken and loving heart.
“Let it be so, Paulina,” answered Douglas, with emotion. “I have no wish to see your fair, false face again. My heart has been broken by your treachery; and my best hope lies in the chance that your hand may have already done its wicked work, and that my life may be forfeited to my confidence in your affection. Let no thought of my gifts trouble you. The fortune which was to have been shared with you is henceforth powerless to purchase one blessing for me. And of the law which you have outraged you need have no few; your secret will never be revealed to mortal ears by me. No investigation will drag to light the details of your crime.”
“You may seek no investigation, Douglas Dale,” cried Paulina, with sudden passion; “but I shall do so, and without delay. You have accused me of a foul and treacherous crime — on what proof I know not. It is for me to prove myself innocent of that black iniquity; and if human ingenuity can fathom the mystery, it shall be fathomed. I will bring you to my feet — yes, to my feet; and you shall beseech my pardon for the wicked wrong you have done me. But even then this breach of your own making shall for ever separate us. I may learn to forgive you, Douglas, but I can never trust you again. And now go.”
She pointed to the door with an imperious gesture. There was a quiet dignity in her manner and her bearing which impressed her accuser in spite of himself.
He bowed, and without another word left the presence of the woman who for so long had been the idol of his heart.
He went from her presence bowed to the very dust by a sorrow which was too deep for tears.
“She is an accomplished actress,” he said to himself; “and to the very last her policy has been defiance. And now my dream is ended, and I awake to a blank, joyless life. A strange fatality seems to have attended Sir Oswald Eversleigh and the inheritors of his wealth. He died broken-hearted by a woman’s falsehood; my brother Lionel bestowed his best affections on the mercenary, fashionable coquette, Lydia Graham, who was ready to accept another lover within a few weeks of her pretended devotion to him; and lastly comes my misery at the hands of a wicked adventuress.”
Douglas Dale resolved to leave London early next day. He returned to his Temple chambers, intending to start for the Continent the next morning.
But when the next day came he did not carry out his intention. He found himself disinclined to seek change of scene, which he felt could bring him no relief of mind. Go where he would, he could not separate himself from the bitter memories of the past few months.
He determined to remain in London; for, to the man who wishes to avoid the companionship of his fellow-men, there is no hermitage more secure than a lodging in the heart of busy, selfish London. He determined to remain, for in London he could obtain information as to the conduct of Paulina.
What would she do now that the stage-play was ended, and deception could no longer avail? Would she once more resume her old habits — open her saloons to the patrician gamblers of West-end London, and steep her weary, guilt-burdened soul in the mad intoxication of the gaming-table?
Would Sir Reginald Eversleigh again assume his old position in her household? — again become her friend and flatterer? She had affected to despise him; but that might have been only a part of the great deception of which Douglas had been the victim.
These were the questions the lonely, heartbroken man asked himself that night, as he sat brooding by his solitary hearth, no longer able to find pleasure in the nightly studies which had once been so delightful to him.
Ah! how deeply he must have loved that woman, when the memory of her guilt poisoned his existence! How madly he still clung to the thought of her! — how intensely he desired to penetrate the secrets of her life!
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50