It was the night before the wedding. Though Sinclair, and not myself, was the happy man, I had my own causes for excitement, and, finding the heat of the billiard-room insupportable, I sought the veranda for a solitary smoke in sight of the ocean and a full moon.
I was in a condition of rapturous, if unreasoning, delight. That afternoon a little hand had lingered in mine for just an instant longer than the circumstances of the moment strictly required; and small as the favour may seem to those who do not know Dorothy Camerden, to me, who realised fully both her delicacy and pride, it was a sign that my long, if secret, devotion was about to be rewarded, and that at last I was free to cherish hopes whose alternative had once bid fair to wreck the happiness of my life.
I was revelling in the felicity of these anticipations, and contrasting this hour of ardent hope with others of whose dissatisfaction and gloom I was yet mindful, when a sudden shadow fell across the broad band of light issuing from the library window, and Sinclair stepped out.
He had the appearance of being disturbed — very much disturbed, I thought, for a man on the point of marrying the woman for whom he professed to entertain the one profound passion of his life; but remembering his frequent causes of annoyance — causes quite apart from his bride and her personal attributes — I kept on placidly smoking till I felt his hand on my shoulder, and turned to see that the moment was a serious one.
“I have something to say to you,” he whispered. “Come where we shall run less risk of being disturbed.”
“What’s wrong?” I asked, facing him with curiosity, if not with alarm. “I never saw you look like this before. Has the old lady taken this last minute to ——”
“Hush!” he prayed, emphasising the word with a curt gesture not to be mistaken. “The little room over the west porch is empty just now. Follow me there.”
With a sigh for the cigar I had so lately lighted, I tossed it into the bushes and sauntered in after him. I thought I understood his trouble. The prospective bride was young — a mere slip of a girl indeed — bright, beautiful, and proud, yet with odd little restraints in her manner and language, due probably to her peculiar bringing up, and the surprise, not yet overcome, of finding herself, after an isolated, if not despised, childhood, the idol of society and the recipient of general homage. The fault was not with her. But she had for guardian (alas! my dear girl had the same) an aunt who was a gorgon. This aunt must have been making herself disagreeable to the prospective bridegroom, and he, being quick to take offence — quicker than myself, it was said — had probably retorted in a way to make things unpleasant. As he was a guest in the house, he and all the other members of the bridal party — Mrs. Armstrong having insisted upon opening her magnificent Newport villa for this wedding and its attendant festivities — the matter might well look black to him. Yet I did not feel disposed to take much interest in it, even though his case might be mine some day, with all its accompanying drawbacks.
But once confronted with Sinclair in the well-lighted room above, I perceived that I had better drop all selfish regrets and give my full attention to what he had to say. For his eye, which had flashed with an unusual light at dinner, was clouded now; and his manner, when he strove to speak, betrayed a nervousness I had considered foreign to his nature ever since the day I had seen him rein in his horse so calmly on the extreme edge of a precipice, where a fall would have meant certain death, not only to himself, but also to the two riders who unwittingly were pressing closely behind him.
“Walter,” he faltered, “something has happened — something dreadful, something unprecedented! You may think me a fool — God knows, I would be glad to be proved so! — but this thing has frightened me. I”— he paused and pulled himself together —“I will tell you about it, then you can judge for yourself. I am in no condition ——”
“Don’t beat about the bush! Speak up! What’s the matter?”
He gave me an odd look full of gloom — a look I felt the force of, though I could not interpret it; then, coming closer, though there was no one within hearing — possibly no one any nearer than the drawing-room below — he whispered in my ear:
“I have lost a little vial of the deadliest drug ever compounded — a Venetian curiosity, which I was foolish enough to take out and show the ladies, because the little box which holds it is such an exquisite example of jeweller’s work. There’s death in its taste, almost in its smell; and it’s out of my hands, and ——”
“Well, I’ll tell you how to fix that up,” I put in with my usual frank decision. “Order the music stopped; call everybody into the drawing-room, and explain the dangerous nature of this toy. After which, if anything happens, it will not be your fault, but that of the person who has so thoughtlessly appropriated it.”
His eyes, which had been resting eagerly on mine, shifted aside in visible embarrassment.
“Impossible! It would only aggravate matters, or, rather, would not relieve my fears at all. The person who took it knew its nature very well, and that person ——”
“Oh, then you know who took it!” I broke in in increasing astonishment. “I thought from your manner that ——”
“No,” he moodily corrected, “I do not know who took it. If I did, I should not be here. That is, I do not know the exact person. Only ——” Here he again eyed me with his former singular intentness, and, observing that I was nettled, made a fresh beginning. “When I came here I brought with me a case of rarities chosen from my various collections. In looking over them preparatory to making a present to Gilbertine, I came across the little box I have just mentioned. It is made of a single amethyst, and contains — or so I was assured when I bought it — a tiny flask of old but very deadly poison. How it came to be included with the other precious and beautiful articles I had picked out for her cadeau I cannot say. But there it was; and conceiving that the sight of it would please the ladies, I carried it down into the library, and in an evil hour called three or four of those about me to inspect it. This was while you boys were in the billiard-room, so the ladies could give their entire attention to the little box, which is certainly worth the most careful scrutiny.
“I was holding it out on the palm of my hand, where it burned with a purple light which made more than one feminine eye glitter, when somebody inquired to what use so small and yet so rich a receptacle could be put. The question was such a natural one I never thought of evading it; besides, I enjoy the fearsome delight which women take in the marvellous. Expecting no greater result than lifted eyebrows or flushed cheeks, I answered by pressing a little spring in the filigree-work surrounding the gem. Instantly the tiniest of lids flew back, revealing a crystal flask of such minute proportions that the usual astonishment followed its disclosure.
“‘You see!’ I cried, ‘it was made to hold that!’ And moving my hand to and fro under the gas jet, I caused to shine in their eyes the single drop of yellow liquid it still held. ‘Poison!’ I impressively announced. ‘This trinket may have adorned the bosom of a Borgia or flashed from the arm of some great Venetian lady as she flourished her fan between her embittered heart and the object of her wrath or jealousy.’
“The first sentence had come naturally, but the last was spoken at random, and almost unconsciously. For at the utterance of the word ‘poison’ a quickly suppressed cry had escaped the lips of some one behind me, which, while faint enough to elude the attention of any ear less sensitive than my own, contained such an astonishing, if involuntary, note of self-betrayal that my mind grew numb with horror, and I stood staring at the fearful toy which had called up such a revelation of — what? That is what I am here to ask, first of myself, then of you. For the two women pressing behind me were ——”
“Who?” I sharply demanded, partaking in some indefinable way of his excitement and alarm.
“Gilbertine Murray and Dorothy Camerden!”— his prospective bride and the woman I loved and whom he knew I loved, though I had kept my secret quite successfully from every one else!
The look we exchanged neither of us will ever forget.
“Describe the sound,” I presently said.
“I cannot,” he replied. “I can only give you my impression of it. You, like myself, fought in more than one skirmish in the Cuban War. Did you ever hear the cry made by a wounded man when the cup of cool water for which he has long agonised is brought suddenly before his eyes? Such a sound, with all that goes to make it eloquent, did I hear from one of the two girls who leaned over my shoulder. Can you understand this amazing, this unheard-of circumstance? Can you name the woman — can you name the grief capable of making either of these seemingly happy and innocent girls hail the sight of such a doubtful panacea, with an unconscious ebullition of joy? You would clear my wedding-eve of a great dread if you could, for if this expression of concealed misery came from Gilbertine ——”
“Do you mean,” I cried in vehement protest, “that you really are in doubt as to which of these two women uttered the cry which so startled you? That you positively cannot tell whether it was Gilbertine or — or ——”
“I cannot; as God lives, I cannot! I was too dazed, too confounded by the unexpected circumstance, to turn at once, and when I did, it was to see both pairs of eyes shining, and both faces dimpling with real or affected gaiety. Indeed, if the matter had stopped there, I should have thought myself the victim of some monstrous delusion; but when, a half-hour later, I found this box missing from the cabinet where I had hastily thrust it at the peremptory summons of our hostess, I knew that I had not misunderstood the nature of the cry I had heard; that it was indeed one of secret longing, and that the hand had simply taken what the heart desired. If a death occurs in this house to-night ——”
“Sinclair, you are mad!” I exclaimed with great violence. No lesser word would fit either the intensity of my feeling or the confused state of my mind. “Death here! where all are so happy! Remember your bride’s ingenuous face! Remember the candid expression of Dorothy’s eye — her smile, her noble ways! You exaggerate the situation. You neither understand aright the simple expression of surprise you heard, nor the feminine frolic which led these girls to carry off this romantic specimen of Italian deviltry.”
“You are losing time,” was his simple comment. “Every minute we allow to pass in inaction only brings the danger nearer.”
“What! You imagine ——”
“I imagine nothing. I simply know that one of these girls has in her possession the means of terminating life in an instant; that the girl so having it is not happy; and that if anything happens to-night it will be because we rested supine in the face of a very real and possible danger. Now, as Gilbertine has never given me reason to doubt either her affection for myself or her satisfaction in our approaching union, I have allowed myself ——”
“To think that the object of your fears is Dorothy,” I finished, with a laugh I vainly strove to make sarcastic.
He did not answer, and I stood battling with a dread I could neither conceal nor avow. For, preposterous as his idea was, reason told me that he had some grounds for his doubt.
Dorothy, unlike Gilbertine Murray, was not to be read at a glance, and her trouble — for she certainly had a trouble — was not one she chose to share with any one, even with me. I had flattered myself in days gone by that I understood it well enough, and that any lack of sincerity I might observe in her could be easily explained by the position of dependence she held toward an irascible aunt. But now that I forced myself to consider the matter carefully, I could not but ask if the varying moods by which I had found myself secretly harrowed had not sprung from a very different cause — a cause for which my persistent love was more to blame than the temper of her relative. The aversion she had once shown to my attentions had yielded long ago to a shy but seemingly sincere appreciation of them, and gleams of what I was fain to call real feeling had shown themselves now and then in her softened manner, culminating to-day in that soft pressure of my hand which had awakened my hopes and made me forget all the doubts and caprices of a disturbing courtship.
But, had I interpreted that strong, nervous pressure aright? Had it necessarily meant love? Might it not have sprung from a sudden desperate resolution to accept a devotion which offered her a way out of difficulties especially galling to one of her gentle but lofty spirit? Her expression when she caught my look of joy had little of the demure tenderness of a maiden blushing at her first involuntary avowal. There was shrinking in it, but it was the shrinking of a frightened woman, not of an abashed girl; and when I strove to follow her, the gesture with which she waved me back had that in it which would have alarmed a more exacting lover. Had I mistaken my darling’s feelings? Was her heart still cold, her affection unwon? Or — thought insupportable! — had she secretly yielded to another what she had so long denied me, and ——?
“Ah!” quoth Sinclair at this juncture, “I see that I have roused you at last.” And unconsciously his tone grew lighter and his eye lost the strained look which had made it the eye of a stranger. “You begin to see that a question of the most serious import is before us, and that this question must be answered before we separate for the night.”
“I do,” said I.
His relief was evident.
“Then, so much is gained. The next point is, how are we to settle our doubts? We cannot approach either of these ladies with questions. A girl wretched enough to contemplate suicide would be especially careful to conceal both her misery and its cause. Neither can we order a search to be made for an object so small that it can be concealed about the person.”
“Yet this jewel must be recovered. Listen, Sinclair. I will have a talk with Dorothy, you with Gilbertine. A kind talk, mind you! one that will soothe, not frighten. If a secret lurks in either breast, our tenderness should find it out. Only, as you love me, promise to show me the same frankness I here promise to show you. Dear as Dorothy is to me, I swear to communicate to you the full result of my conversation with her, whatever the cost to myself or even to her.”
“And I will be equally fair as regards Gilbertine. But before we proceed to such extreme measures let us make sure that there is no shorter road to the truth. Some one may have seen which of our two dear girls went back to the library after we all came out of it. That would narrow down our inquiry, and save one of them, at least, from unnecessary disturbance.”
It was a happy thought, and I told him so, but at the same time bade him look in the glass and see how impossible it would be for him to venture below without creating an alarm which might precipitate the dread event we both feared.
He replied by drawing me to his side before the mirror and pointing to my own face. It was as pale as his own.
Most disagreeably impressed by this self-betrayal, I coloured deeply under Sinclair’s eye, and was but little, if any, relieved when I noticed that he coloured under mine. For his feelings were no enigma to me. Naturally, he was glad to discover that I shared his apprehensions, since it gave him leave to hope that the blow he so dreaded was not necessarily directed toward his own affections. Yet, being a generous fellow, he blushed to be detected in his egotism, while I— well, I own that at that moment I should have felt a very unmixed joy at being assured that the foundations of my own love were secure, and that the tiny flask Sinclair had missed had not been taken by the hand of her upon whom I depended for all my earthly happiness.
And my wedding-day was as yet a vague and distant hope, while his was set for the morrow.
“We must carry downstairs very different faces from these,” he remarked, “or we shall be stopped before we reach the library.”
I made an effort at composure, so did he; and both being determined men, we soon found ourselves in a condition to descend among our friends without attracting any closer attention than was naturally due to him as prospective bridegroom and to myself as best man.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55