Mrs. Armstrong, our hostess, was fond of gaiety, and amusements were never lacking. As we stepped down into the great hall we heard music in the drawing-room, and saw that a dance was in progress.
“That is good,” observed Sinclair. “We shall run less risk of finding the library occupied.”
“Shall I not look and see where the girls are? It would be a great relief to find them both among the dancers.”
“Yes,” said he; “but don’t allow yourself to be inveigled into joining them. I could not stand the suspense.”
I nodded, and slipped toward the drawing-room. He remained in the bay-window overlooking the terrace.
A rush of young people greeted me as soon as I showed myself. But I was able to elude them, and catch the one full glimpse I wanted of the great room beyond. It was a magnificent apartment, and so brilliantly lighted that every nook stood revealed. On a divan near the centre was a lady conversing with two gentlemen. Her back was toward me, but I had no difficulty in recognising Miss Murray. Some distance from her, but with her face also turned away, stood Dorothy. She was talking with an unmarried friend, and appeared quite at ease and more than usually cheerful.
Relieved, yet sorry that I had not succeeded in catching a glimpse of their faces, I hastened back to Sinclair, who was watching me with furtive eyes from between the curtains of the window in which he had secreted himself. As I joined him a young man, who was to act as usher, sauntered from behind one of the great pillars forming a colonnade down the hall, and, crossing to where the music-room door stood invitingly open, disappeared behind it with the air of a man perfectly contented with his surroundings.
With a nervous grip Sinclair seized me by the arm.
“Was that Beaton?” he asked.
“Certainly; didn’t you recognise him?”
He gave me a very strange look.
“Does the sight of him recall anything?”
“You were at the breakfast-table yesterday morning?”
“Do you remember the dream he related for the delectation of such as would listen?”
Then it was my turn to go white.
“You don’t mean ——” I began.
“I thought at the time that it sounded more like a veritable adventure than a dream; now I am sure that it was such.”
“Sinclair! You do not mean that the young girl he professed himself to have surprised one moonlit night standing on the verge of the cliff, with arms upstretched and a distracted air, was a real person?”
“I do. We laughed at the time; he made it seem so tragic and preposterous. I do not feel like laughing now.”
I gazed at Sinclair in horror. The music was throbbing in our ears, and the murmur of gay voices and swiftly-moving feet suggested nothing but joy and hilarity. Which was the dream? This scene of seeming mirth and happy promise, or the fancies he had conjured up to rob us both of peace?
“Beaton mentioned no names,” I stubbornly protested. “He did not even call the vision he encountered a woman. It was a wraith, you remember, a dream-maiden, a creature of his own imagination, born of some tragedy he had read.”
“Beaton is a gentleman,” was Sinclair’s cold reply. “He did not wish to injure, but to warn the woman for whose benefit he told his tale.”
“He doubtless reasoned in this way: If he could make this young and probably sensitive girl realise that she had been seen and her intentions recognised, she would beware of such attempts in the future. He is a kind-hearted fellow. Did you notice which end of the table he ignored when relating this dramatic episode?”
“If you had we might be better able to judge where his thoughts were. Probably you cannot even tell how the ladies took it?”
“No, I never thought of looking. Good God, Sinclair, don’t let us harrow up ourselves unnecessarily! I saw them both a moment ago, and nothing in their manner showed that anything was amiss with either of them.”
For answer he drew me toward the library.
This room was not frequented by the young people at night. There were two or three elderly people in the party, notably the husband and the brother of the lady of the house, and to their use the room was more or less given up after nightfall. Sinclair wished to show me the cabinet where the box had been.
There was a fire in the grate, for the evenings were now more or less chilly. When the door had closed behind us we found that this fire supplied all the light there was in the room. Both gas jets had been put out, and the rich yet homelike room glowed with ruddy hues, interspersed with great shadows. A solitary scene, yet an enticing one.
Sinclair drew a deep breath. “Mr. Armstrong must have gone elsewhere to read the evening papers,” he remarked.
I replied by casting a scrutinising look into the corners. I dreaded finding a pair of lovers hid somewhere in the many nooks made by the jutting bookcases. But I saw no one. However, at the other end of the large room there stood a screen near one of the many lounges, and I was on the point of approaching this place of concealment when Sinclair drew me toward a tall cabinet upon whose glass doors the firelight was shimmering, and, pointing to a shelf far above our heads, cried:
“No woman could reach that unaided. Gilbertine is tall, but not tall enough for that. I purposely put it high.”
I looked about for a stool. There was one just behind Sinclair. I drew his attention to it.
He flushed and gave it a kick, then shivered slightly and sat down in a chair nearby. I knew what he was thinking. Gilbertine was taller than Dorothy. This stool might have served Gilbertine, if not Dorothy.
I felt a great sympathy for him. After all, his case was more serious than mine. The Bishop was coming to marry him the next day.
“Sinclair,” said I, “the stool means nothing. Dorothy has more inches than you think. With this under her feet, she could reach the shelf by standing tiptoe. Besides, there are the chairs.”
“True, true!” and he started up; “there are the chairs! I forgot the chairs. I fear my wits have gone wool-gathering. We shall have to take others into our confidence.” Here his voice fell to a whisper. “Somehow or by some means we must find out if either of them was seen to come into this room.”
“Leave that to me,” said I. “Remember that a word might raise suspicion, and that in a case like this —— Halloa, what’s that?”
A gentle snore had come from behind the screen.
“We are not alone,” I whispered. “Some one is over there on the lounge.”
Sinclair had already bounded across the room. I pressed hurriedly behind him, and together we rounded the screen and came upon the recumbent figure of Mr. Armstrong, asleep on the lounge, with his paper fallen from his hand.
“That accounts for the lights being turned out,” grumbled Sinclair. “Dutton must have done it.”
Dutton was the butler.
I stood contemplating the sleeping figure before me.
“He must have been lying here for some time,” I muttered.
“Probably some little while before he slept,” I pursued. “I have often heard that he dotes on the firelight.”
“I have a notion to wake him,” suggested Sinclair.
“It will not be necessary,” said I, drawing back, as the heavy figure stirred, breathed heavily, and finally sat up.
“I beg pardon,” I now entreated, backing politely away. “We thought the room empty.”
Mr. Armstrong, who, if slow to receive impressions, is far from lacking intelligence, eyed us with sleepy indifference for a moment, then rose ponderously to his feet, and was on the instant the man of manner and unfailing courtesy we had ever found him.
“What can I do to oblige you?” he asked, his smooth, if hesitating, tones sounding strange to our excited ears.
I made haste to forestall Sinclair, who was racking his brains for words with which to propound the question he dared not put too boldly.
“Pardon me, Mr. Armstrong, we were looking about for a small pin dropped by Miss Camerden.” (How hard it was for me to use her name in this connection only my own heart knew.) “She was in here just now, was she not?”
The courteous gentleman bowed, hemmed, and smiled a very polite but unmeaning smile. Evidently he had not the remotest notion whether she had been in or not.
“I am sorry, but I am afraid I lost myself for a moment on that lounge,” he admitted. “The firelight always makes me sleepy. But if I can help you,” he cried, starting forward, but almost immediately pausing again and giving us rather a curious look. “Some one was in the room. I remember it now. It was just before the warmth and glow of the fire became too much for me. I cannot say that it was Miss Camerden, however. I thought it was some one of quicker movement. She made quite a rattle with the chairs.”
I purposely did not look back at Sinclair.
“Miss Murray?” I suggested.
Mr. Armstrong made one of his low, old-fashioned bows. This, I doubt not, was out of deference to the bride-to-be.
“Does Miss Murray wear white to-night?”
“Yes,” muttered Sinclair, coming hastily forward.
“Then it may have been she, for as I lay there deciding whether or not to yield to the agreeable somnolence I felt creeping over me, I caught a glimpse of the lady’s skirt as she passed out. And that skirt was white — white silk I suppose you call it. It looked very pretty in the firelight.”
Sinclair, turning on his heel, stalked in a dazed way toward the door. To cover this show of abruptness, which was quite unusual on his part, I made the effort of my life, and, remarking lightly, “She must have been here looking for the pin her friend has lost,” I launched forth into an impromptu dissertation on one of the subjects I knew to be dear to the heart of the bookworm before me — and kept it up, too, till I saw by his brightening eye and suddenly freed manner that he had forgotten the insignificant episode of a minute ago, never in all probability to recall it again. Then I made another effort, and released myself with something like deftness from the long-drawn-out argument I saw impending, and making for the door in my turn, glanced about for Sinclair. So far as I was concerned the question as to who had taken the box from the library was settled.
It was now half-past eight. I made my way from room to room and from group to group looking for Sinclair. At last I returned to my old post near the library door, and was instantly rewarded by the sight of his figure approaching from a small side-passage in company with the butler, Dutton. His face, as he stepped into the full light of the open hall, showed discomposure, but not the extreme distress I had anticipated. Somehow, at sight of it, I found myself seeking the shadow just as he had done a short time before, and it was in one of the recesses made by a row of bay-trees that we came face to face.
He gave me one look, then his eyes dropped.
“Miss Camerden has lost a pin from her hair,” he impressively explained to me. Then, turning to Dutton, he nonchalantly remarked: “It must be somewhere in this hall; perhaps you will be good enough to look for it.”
“Certainly,” replied the man. “I thought she had lost something when I saw her come out of the library a little while ago, holding her hand to her hair.”
My heart gave a leap, then sank cold and almost pulseless in my breast. In the hum to which all sounds had sunk, I heard Sinclair’s voice rise again in the question with which my own mind was full.
“When was that? After Mr. Armstrong went into the room, or before?”
“Oh, after he fell asleep. I had just come from putting out the gas when I saw Miss Camerden slip in and almost immediately come out again. I will search for the pin very carefully, sir.”
So Mr. Armstrong had made a mistake! It was Dorothy, and not Gilbertine, whom he had seen leaving the room. I braced myself up and met Sinclair’s eye.
“Dorothy’s dress is grey to-night; but Mr. Armstrong’s eye may not be very good for colours.”
“It is possible that both were in the room,” was Sinclair’s reply. But I could see that he advanced this theory solely out of consideration for me; that he did not really believe it. “At all events,” he went on, “we cannot prove anything this way; we must revert to our original idea. I wonder if Gilbertine will give me the chance to speak to her.”
“You will have an easier task than I,” was my half-sullen retort. “If Dorothy perceives that I wish to approach her, she has but to lift her eyes to any of the half-dozen fellows here, and the thing becomes impossible.”
“There is to be a rehearsal of the ceremony at half-past ten. I might get a word in then; only, this matter must be settled first. I could never go through the farce of standing up before you all at Gilbertine’s side, with such a doubt as this in my mind.”
“You will see her before then. Insist on a moment’s talk. If she refuses ——”
“Hush!” he here put in. “We part now to meet in this same place again at ten. Do I look fit to enter among the dancers? I see a whole group of them coming for me.”
“You will be in another moment. Approaching matrimony has made you sober, that’s all.”
It was some time before I had the opportunity, even if I had the courage, to look Dorothy in the face. When the moment came she was flushed with dancing and looked beautiful. Ordinarily she was a little pale, but not even Gilbertine, with her sumptuous colouring, showed a warmer cheek than she, as, resting from the waltz, she leaned against the rose-tinted wall, and let her eyes for the first time rise slowly to where I stood talking mechanically to my partner.
Gentle eyes they were, made for appeal, and eloquent with a subdued heart language. But they were held in check by an infinite discretion. Never have I caught them quite off their guard, and to-night they were wholly unreadable. Yet she was trembling with something more than the fervour of the dance, and the little hand which had touched mine in lingering pressure a few hours before was not quiet for a moment. I could not see it fluttering in and out of the folds of her smoke-coloured dress without a sickening wonder if the little purple box which was the cause of my horror lay somewhere concealed amid the airy puffs and ruffles that rose and fell so rapidly over her heaving breast. Could her eye rest on mine, even in this cold and perfunctory manner, if the drop which could separate us for ever lay concealed over her heart? She knew that I loved her. From the first hour we met in her aunt’s forbidding parlour in Thirty-sixth Street she had recognised my passion, however perfectly I had succeeded in concealing it from others. Inexperienced as she was in those days, she had noted as quickly as any society belle the effect produced upon me by her chill prettiness and her air of meek reserve, under which one felt the heart break; and though she would never openly acknowledge my homage, and frowned down every attempt on my part at lover-like speech or attention, I was as sure that she rated my feelings at their real value as that she was the dearest, yet most incomprehensible, mortal my narrow world contained. When, therefore, I encountered her eyes at the end of the dance, I said to myself:
“She may not love me, but she knows that I love her, and, being a woman of sympathetic instincts, would never meet my eyes with so calm a look if she were meditating an act which must infallibly plunge me into misery.”
Yet I was not satisfied to go away without a word. So, taking the bull by the horns, I excused myself to my partner, and crossed to Dorothy’s side.
“Will you dance the next waltz with me?” I asked.
Her eyes fell from mine directly, and she drew back in a way that suggested flight.
“I shall dance no more to-night,” said she, her hand rising in its nervous fashion to her hair.
I made no appeal. I just watched that hand, whereupon she flushed vividly, and seemed more than ever anxious to escape. At which I spoke again.
“Give me a chance, Dorothy. If you will not dance, come out on the veranda and look at the ocean. It is glorious to-night. I will not keep you long. The lights here trouble my eyes; besides, I am most anxious to ask you ——”
“No, no,” she vehemently objected, very much as if frightened. “I cannot leave the drawing-room — do not ask me! Seek some other partner — do, to-night.”
“You wish it?”
She was panting, eager. I felt my heart sink, and dreaded lest I should betray my feelings.
“You do not honour me, then, with your regard,” I retorted, bowing ceremoniously as I became assured that we were attracting more attention than I considered desirable.
She was silent. Her hand went again to her hair.
I changed my tone. Quietly, but with an emphasis which moved her in spite of herself, I whispered: “If I leave you now, will you tell me to-morrow why you are so peremptory with me to-night?”
With an eagerness which was anything but encouraging, she answered, almost gaily:
“Yes, yes, after all this excitement is over.”
And slipping her hand into that of a friend who was passing, she was soon in the whirl again and dancing — she who had just assured me that she did not mean to dance again that night.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50